Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debecki, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel.
Created in the wake of the massive success of the Bond films, the popular television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which ran from 1964-1968, was just one of many such spy stories that grew out of the Cold War tensions of the era. It followed the exploits of agents Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum) who tackled the nefarious plans of T.H.R.U.S.H., the villainous organisation with plans of dominating the world. When the series began, Solo and Kuryakin were already working together. This big screen adaptation of the popular series operates largely as an origins story, telling us how the two came to join forces. As such it follows the usual template of the buddy action comedy genre, lacing the action with generous lashings of humour.
Here Solo (played with steel jawed efficiency by Man Of Steel’s Henry Cavill) is introduced as a master thief who prospered on the post war black market of Europe before he was caught by the CIA and forced to work for them on special assignments. When the film opens, Solo has been sent into East Berlin to try and rescue Gaby (Alicia Vikander), whose father, a Nazi rocket scientist, has gone missing. The CIA believes that Gaby holds the key to finding him.
But Solo encounters the ruthlessly efficient KGB assassin Kuryakin (played by Armie Hammer, better known for his role in The Social Network and more recently the giant box office flop The Lone Ranger). At first they pursue each other through the darkened streets of East Berlin trying to kill each other. But later they are forced to temporarily suspend their hostilities and work together in a common cause of preventing a stolen nuclear device from falling into hostile hands.
Victoria Vinciguerra (played by Elizabeth Debecki, seen in Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant retelling of The Great Gatsby, etc) is the daughter of a wealthy Italian industrialist and she is building her own nuclear bomb and is using the expertise of Gaby’s father to complete her work.
This mix of macho blokey action and humour is one of the trademarks of director Guy Ritchie, whose films include Snatch and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, etc, especially in the wake of his treatment of legendary fictitious character Sherlock Holmes in his recent movies starring Robert Downey jr and Jude Law.
Written by Ritchie and his regular collaborator Lionel Wigram, the film is a mix of action and nice tongue in cheek humour, and it combines elements of It Takes A Thief, another tv series from that era, with the usual tropes of the spy genre. As far as recent spy thrillers go, this reboot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has some charm and some well staged action sequences, including a boat chase, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour, but it somehow falls short of superior spy dramas with both the recent The Kingsmen: The Secret Service and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.
The film has a deliberately retro look and feel, and its use of some glamorous and exotic European locations pays homage to the original series, while the costumes and set design are steeped in 60s style. Cinematographer John Mathieson has also shot the film in a style reminiscent of the era.
This is yet another in a long line of television adaptations, but for every successful film like Mission Impossible that works on the big screen there are many that fall flat. But it’s over four decades since the tv show was popular and there is enough distance from the original source material now that this reboot will seem fresh. As far as tv adaptations go The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is actually enjoyable enough.
The relationship between Solo and Kuryakin here is characterised by some wonderful banter and an air of mistrust. Cavill has plenty of charm and sly humour as the dashing Solo, while Hammer has a much more physical presence and does more of the heavy lifting as far as the action is concerned. The two develop a crackling rapport. There is lots of humour in the prickly relationship that develops between Solo and Kuryakin as the pair exchange banter and insults.
The very busy Swedish actress Vikander is not given a lot to do, but her presence brings some sexual tension to the already prickly relationship between Solo and Kuryakin. Debecki brings a nice quality to her role as the villain of the piece. Hugh Grant weighs in with a nice light weight performance as Mr Waverley, who here works for MI6, and Jared Harris brings a suitably gruff surly quality to his brief performance as Sanders, Solo’s CIA boss. It’s disappointing that the producers could not find cameos for the original stars of the series in Vaughn and McCallum, who is enjoying a new level of popularity through his role in NCIS.
The obvious rapport between the two stars adds to the material and it would be enjoyable to see more of their exploits. And although the film hints that this is the beginning of a beautiful new franchise, the disappointing box office results in the US would suggest that maybe a second outing for these men from U.N.C.L.E. is dubious.