It’s surprising THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t remade sometime in the ‘90s, when big budget TV remakes were at critical mass. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a cultish spy series that aired from 1964 to 1968. Spy movies were no doubt big at the time, with, of course, Sean Connery’s James Bond ruling the box office, and plenty of Italian knock-offs flooding the drive-ins. Ian Fleming, the creator of super-spy James Bond, even acted as a consultant on the show on the original The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. When Daniel Craig took over as Bond in 2006, a more serious era of MI6 was born. The new Bond era films are considered to be some of the best of the franchise, and luckily for film audiences, with a darker Bond, the super-secret trap-door has been opened up for plenty of spy films — such as the wonderful KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE from earlier this year — that embrace more of the fun and silliness of the genre.
Set in 1963, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. stars Henry Cavill (MAN OF STEEL) as American secret agent Napoleon Solo, a former thief with very sophisticated tastes. He is teamed up with KGB agent Illya Kuryakin, portrayed by Armie Hammer (THE SOCIAL NETWORK). The two agents, from opposite sides of the Cold War, are thrust into a mission, partnered with the undeniable Alicia Vikander (EX MACHINA) as Gaby Teller, the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to the mission. The three are on the track of a nuclear warhead or a bomb of some sort, but none of that really matters. The real enjoyment of this movie is not in the plot but in watching the characters do spy stuff, and looking sexy doing it.
The film retains the tone of the show, with Hammer and Cavill foiling the bad guys’ plot using charm and trickery rather than bullets. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. takes notes from many of the Roger Moore era Bond films, where most of the plot revolves around infiltration, not always big set pieces and gadgetry. The two actors’ performances play nicely off each other; Cavill’s matter-of-fact delivery of his lines has a perfect blend of knowing humor and magnetism, and Hammer’s straight-faced timing moves along the relationship of two men who don’t necessarily want to work with each other, but who the audience knows will become buddies by the end. Hammer’s romance with Vikander provides plenty more humor to the proceedings, as well as subtle sex appeal.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is one of the sexiest movies of the year. The whole film oozes style, no doubt due to being set in 1963, as well as being filmed primarily in Italy. Cavill wears his bespoke, three-piece suits with panache, Hammer dons turtlenecks and Baracutta Harrington style jackets that give ‘60s-Magneto Fassbender a run for his money, and Vikander is amazing in her mod-style dresses, big round sunglasses, and men’s-style pajamas. She is truly breathtaking to look at, and so are the guys. There’s enough eye candy for everyone in this film, including those who just dig fabulous architecture and scenery. Guy Ritchie has always been a director known for his stylish take on action, but here he puts a fine point on it, even having the two leads argue over whether or not an outfit is too matchy-matchy.
Ritchie’s visual eye is on display, capturing the swagger of Italy in the ‘60s. The director no doubt took a few cues from cult-classics such as DANGER: DIABOLIK while coming up with a look for the film. Sometimes the muted color palate does the colors a disservice, but the use of great old soul and Italian pop music more than makes up for it. The fantastic score by Daniel Pemberton echoes those of Morricone from time to time, as well as the more swinging side of Italian cinema.
The only place where the score seems to falter is in the larger action sequences, which honestly there aren’t many of and that’s a good thing because it’s obviously not where the films strengths lie. The direction and music seem very bland and obvious, and will have the audience wishing they were just watching Hammer and Cavill on an infiltration mission. Even Ritchie seems to know this, as one of the big gun-battle sequences towards the end, which would have made up a quarter of a lesser film, is glossed over. The film’s actual climax is quite slight, built on a joke rather than brute force, just like the rest of the movie.
As a whole, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is style over substance, and that’s it’s biggest strength. As a silent film, it would be a treat to watch, but the charisma of the cast makes it enjoyable, end-of-summer fun, with swagger to spare.