I love a good spy movie, as any of our regular readers would have guessed, and I had high hopes for director Guy Ritchie’s latest, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ But before I tell you whether my hopes were dashed, sobbing to the ground, first I must admit something to you: I used to read the original ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ books. They were first-rate spy adventures, and while I never saw the show the books tied into, I have a deep affection for the original Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, Robert Vaughn (‘Hustle’) and David McCallum (‘NCIS’). Admittedly, this was before I realised there was an inherent misogyny in much of the material of the 70s. But I won’t go into that here (thankfully, the new film does much to make up for that).
So what’s it all about? Spies Kuryakin and Solo work for opposing governments (Russia and the U.S., respectively). When a German nuclear physicist goes missing, the two spies must work together to protect the scientist’s daughter, and foil a scheme to proliferate nuclear weapons. Needless to say, neither man is too happy about this, and nor is Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander; ‘Ex Machina’), the German mechanic they must protect. But all is not as it seems, and we soon find out that there are more agendas at work than just the villian's.
So, did 2015’s ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ live up to my expectations?
This is one hell of a ride. For a spy film, it ticks all the boxes, not only paying respectful homage to its source material but also adding in many of the features of modern action films we've come to enjoy. There’s a good deal of humour, the writing is punchy, the plot isn't full of holes (more on that in a minute) and the chemistry between the three leads is electric.
Those leads, though… Armie Hammer hasn't been in a lot yet, his most famous role to date being the rather disappointing remake of ‘The Lone Ranger’ with Johnny Depp. However, the potential he showed in that film is realised here. His Illya is interesting: there’s a whole film worth of backstory right there, and although some of it could have done with a little less emphasis, I really enjoyed Hammer’s portrayal of the Russian KGB agent forced to work with his rival.
We all know Henry Cavill as the new Superman, and he’s taken this role of Napoleon Solo as his own too. He played Solo with all the humour and swagger the character deserves, never letting up the show. I had only one niggling concern with the male leads, and that was that both their accents could have done with more polish; Hammer’s Russian drops in and out in the early scenes, while Cavill’s over the top Yankee was a little distracting. Speaking of accents, I was so grateful this film not only use subtitles were appropriate, but also made a feature of them. Fans of Ritchie’s will be familiar with his penchant for using little details like that to add that special something to a film.
This is one hell of a ride.
If you've seen ‘Ex Machina’, you will be familiar with how excellent an actress Alica Vikander is. If you haven’t, go see it (after you've seen ‘U.N.C.L.E’). She’s great here, playing hard ball with the boys and holding her own. I was very glad to see that not only has Ritchie updated the attitudes towards the female characters in this film, he’s made them integral to the storyline, and just as capable and strong as the males. Vikander’s mechanic Gaby drives like a racer, but knows which buttons to push to get her way with men. As does this film’s villain, the smooth like ice Elizabeth Debicki (‘The Great Gatsby’).
The pacing of this film is excellent too, with fantastic action interspersed with just the right amount of down time, sometimes layered right over the top of each other. This is just one of the techniques Ritchie uses to keep the energy up throughout. Camera angles and split screens fuse modern and retro, while the special effects are kept to a minimum in favour of character-driven story telling and some great stunts. No time is wasted on mindless action, with every scene moving the film forward. It’s genuinely enjoyable, and if you liked ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’, you should most definitely take a look at ‘U.N.C.L.E’.
The plot isn't full of holes, like I mentioned, but there are a few little niggles. Also, you have to paying attention in one particular scene to understand why what and where, otherwise you spend the rest of the film piecing it together. That one failing in storytelling is why ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ doesn't get five stars from me.
While it’s clear that this film is intended to be the first in a series, if those sequels never arrive, ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ will hold its own. It’s a lot of fun, well made, well written, with performers who relish in their own screen chemistry to give fans of the original and newbies alike plenty to write home about.