Guy Ritchie’s latest film, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., is an adaptation of the 1960’s television show that focused on a twisty spy world filled with double crosses and dangerous espionage, and continues the director’s interest in bro-mantic adventures. The film works as a true lesson of style over substance, with Ritchie seemingly putting more effort into capturing the decade in gorgeous retro-inspired costumes and sets, although there’s just enough here that the experience doesn’t feel completely hollow.
Set during the Cold War era of the 60’s, ex-con turned CIA agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), is teamed up with KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), in order to stop a crime syndicate that poses a very real nuclear weapons threat. Along for the ride is Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of the German rocket scientist being held against his will to prepare the nuclear weapons.
Both Cavill (Man of Steel) and Hammer (The Lone Ranger) give engaging performances as agents at odds. Cavill’s suave and handsome CIA operative is one he fits well, and brings a charm that fits just as well as his perfectly tailored suits. Hammer does well too as the stone-faced and all-business Russian, that deals with his unresolved daddy issues while also being, well, handsome. But the real fun is in the back-and-forth of the mismatched duo as they try to work together, and it’s a shame that their challenging relationship doesn’t take a more central focus, especially in the plot later on.
Vikander (Ex-Machina) makes her presence felt as the competent mechanic that is an obvious move to make her an equal in the films overly testosterone infused world, but she still finds herself being fought over by men or in need of saving and, unfortunately, ends up feeling like Cavill and Hammer’s third wheel most of the time. Yet the real highlight of the film is Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) who plays the villainous Victoria, who is as equally seductive as she is dangerous, and provides a worthy antagonist. Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) also makes a welcome appearance as Mr. Waverly, the spymaster, and really brings the film together in the last act.
The film actively seems to avoid becoming too caught down in large actions sequences, although they are spread throughout, and the opening escape of Cavill and Vikander from East Berlin as Hammer follows closely behind is an exciting and fun piece of film. This does mean though that the rest of the film relies heavily on the espionage plot to carry most of the weight but due to its at times simple nature, it just isn’t that thrilling or captivating.
The most surprising aspect though, is that even with so many parts of this film working so well, and with the clear amount of effort put into the film, there’s an underlining feeling of irrelevance that just can’t be shook. It’s almost as if there’s some component still missing that, added in, could have elevated this from a passing afternoon watch to an espionage classic. Still The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a fun watch, if not just to see Ritchie’s stunning version of the 60’s era brought to life on screen.