'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'
Not too long ago, the Jason Bourne series sucked all the fun out of spy movies, dragging James Bond down to po-faced drama with it. Some great movies came out of that, don’t get me wrong, but this year a couple of Brits have put the fluffy fun back into espionage. Matthew Vaughn got there first with ‘Kingsman’ and now Guy Ritchie delivers his own round of spy silliness with ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’.
It’s strange to think that the man who made ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Snatch’ would one day make us all nostalgic for the Roger Moore era of Bond flicks, but here we are.
Based on an ancient TV series starring Robert Vaughn that even your grandparents barely remember, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ is a willfully slight bit of globe-hopping absurdity that doesn’t even attempt to suggest substance beyond pretty pictures and the prettier people therein. The plot is almost inconsequential and the characters are paper-thin. At the same time, who cares?
Henry Cavill stars as Napoleon Solo, a thief-turned-Cold-War-spy assigned to rescue the connected and stunningly beautiful auto mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from behind the Iron Curtain. Armie Hammer (the greatest name in showbiz) plays Illya Kuryakin, the Russian spy trying to rescue her from the other side. Soon after that little adventure, the three are sent off together on another mission to track down a nuclear warhead that might fall into the hands of former Nazis… or something. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what the movie is about. It’s just an excuse for action, jokes, costumes and pretty people working those things for all they’re worth.
The film is set in the early 1960s. Clearly, that setting along with the genre appealed to co-writer/director Guy Ritchie far more than the original TV series did. Shot in bold colors mimicking garish ’60s film stock and featuring a cavalcade of stylish costumes and period props, the movie practically feels like ’60s pop porn. Ritchie lingers lovingly on every dress, car, sui, and phone with an almost fetishistic attention to detail, and tosses in a delightful period soundtrack for good measure. If you have any fondness for the era, the movie is a feast for the senses. Fortunately, it also recaptures the tone of the pop and pulp entertainment of the time as well to ensure that it’s more than just an exercise in fashion nostalgia.
Though the movie has a body count and a nuclear warhead, there’s never any sense of danger or violence. It’s all just slick fun. Jokes are light and poppy. Dialogue is always snappy (with the occasional stop off at sassy). Action is always served up for cheers. Locations are always postcard pretty. The whole move floats by like a wisp.
At the center are three delightful performances that serve Ritchie’s playful tone well. Henry Cavill adopts a deliberately ridiculous American accent, yet kind of makes it work amidst all the stylized shenanigans. He has just enough charm to pass as a man who may as well be named “Dashing” and shares some great bickering repartee with his co-stars. The deeply underrated Armie Hammer slaps on a silly Russian accent and has a ball playing an uptight goon in a swinger’s world. Alicia Vikander has the slightest role in a movie filled with characters who could be fully defined by a single adjective, yet she manages to inject it with just enough spark to flourish. Watching her tiny frame bounce off Hammer’s immovable object is an absolute delight that should make anyone who sits in front of the movie long enough smile.
For the most part, Ritchie is surprisingly restrained as a director and skips his usual camera pyrotechnics. Recreating the world and tone of movies past was enough for him. There are even times when his film feels like an anti-summer blockbuster, deliberately cutting away from major action scenes to focus on quirky character beats as a gag. Sadly, he just can’t help himself in the big action climax and delivers a sputtering collection of fast cuts and impossible camera moves in a sequence as obnoxious as it is exhilarating. There’s also no denying how empty his big pretty blockbuster truly is. If light thrills and laughs aren’t enough to keep you interested, boredom might set in pretty quickly.
Still, for those who can get into the breezy nostalgic rhythms, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ 2.0 is good goofy fun. Is it completely disposable and somewhat forgettable? Sure, but the mindless escapism works in the moment. When the whole silly trifle ends with setup for a sequel, you might even find yourself hoping this one makes enough cash to keep going.