The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
17 years ago, the film industry dusted off a popular 1960s spy show, created a bloated, big-screen iteration with stars like Ralph Fiennes, Sean Connery, and Uma Thurman, and watched it implode at the box office. Terrible reviews and public indifference not only contributed to the demise of The Avengers but caused studios to steer clear of a similar treatment for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. It has taken Warner Brothers ten years to get this property a new life and, thankfully, the results in no way resemble those of its Cold War TV compatriot. Or, to put it another way, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) is good fun, which The Avengers (1998) wasn't.
To direct The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the filmmakers turned to Guy Ritchie (after Steven Soderbergh dropped out), who showed with Sherlock Holmes and its sequel that he could not only bring modern energy to a period piece but could handle the logistics of a large production. Ritchie is no stranger to making movies with extravagant set pieces, stunt-rich action sequences, and screenplays that mix cheeky attitude and a harder edge. If The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feels a little like Kingsman: The Secret Service, it's no coincidence. Both productions have emerged from the same cauldron of homage to '60s pop culture and spy thrillers.
The movie, which transpires during the same time period as the TV series, opens near Checkpoint Charlie, as American agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) enters East Berlin with the goal of smuggling out Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an auto mechanic whose father, an elite rocket scientist, has disappeared. Solo and Gaby are tracked and pursued by top KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), who nearly catches them before they reach safety. Shortly thereafter, Solo's boss, Sanders (Jared Harris), informs him that he and Illya will be joining forces to locate Gaby's father and prevent him from developing a nuclear bomb for the dangerous and demented Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). While Illya and Gaby pretend to be an engaged couple visiting Rome in advance of their wedding, Solo uses his charm and sticky fingers to catch Victoria's attention.
To use the parlance of superhero movies, this is an "origin story." Fortunately, it's not one we're familiar with because this tale was never related in the TV series. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. chronicles the birth of the organization (U.N.C.L.E. is an acronym for "United Network Command for Law and Enforcement") and tells how two such unlikely (and seemingly mismatched) spies become partners. It also introduces their boss, Waverly (Hugh Grant).
Ritchie directs with a deft touch, allowing things to move at a rapid clip while maintaining a light, sometimes humorous tone. This is a less intense movie than Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (no one climbs around on the outside of an airborne airplane) but that's not a bad thing. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is by no means a straightforward comedy or satire but it's more playful than the Tom Cruise-fronted blockbuster. The plot is standard-order spy movie material but much of the attention is on building relationships. This is enhanced by the excellent chemistry evident among the main trio of Henry Cavill (more Bond than Superman), Armie Hammer, and Alicia Vikander. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. might be about saving the world but we're far more likely to remember Illya and Gaby's "foreplay" or Solo's snack during a boat chase than we are the climactic scene. The offbeat moments give this production its charm.
The period detail is excellent. The opening scenes have such a sense of authenticity that it takes a conscious effort to remember they were filmed in 2015 not 1963. There are several "easter eggs" for fans of the original TV series, including a "cameo" by the theme song. Sadly missing, however, are brief appearances from original cast members Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, both of whom are alive and working. Overlooking them borders on unforgivable.
The film ends where the TV series began and holds out the promise of more stories to come. This is one of those rare instances when a sequel wouldn't just be warranted - it would be welcomed. I'd enjoy spending another two hours in the company of these characters, assuming the direction was as assured and the chemistry as pleasant.
© 2015 James Berardinelli