It seems like the perfect combination: take the guy who directed Snatch, Sherlock Holmes (the Robert Downey Jr. versions), and RocknRolla, and let him make a spy movie that stars Superman and The Lone Ranger. Oh, and set it in the 1960s, where men were men and you had to rely on your wits and your talent instead of letting technology do your dirty work. Sounds pretty badass, right? Well, movie-goer, you’re in luck – because The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is an amazingly-cool movie that’s fun to watch and easy to enjoy.
In a year that’s already chock-full of spy movies – we’ve seen Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation already released, with Spectre, Bridge of Spies, and Agent 47 still to come into theaters before the end of 2015 – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. still manages to feel fresh and exciting, which is no small feat in itself. Loosely based on the TV show of the same name that ran from 1964 – 1968, the film opens with American CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) running an undercover mission on the “wrong side” of the Berlin Wall, working to extract an East German mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) who is needed for intel on an upcoming mission regarding a nuclear bomb. Also in pursuit of Gaby is KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) who wants to score the intel for their side so the Russians can stay ahead of the US in the arms race. When it’s revealed that the nuclear threat will potentially end up in the hands of rogue mercenaries, the United States and Russia feel that they have no choice but to work together to eliminate the threat; this, of course, pairs Solo and Illya – or, as they affectionately refer to each other, “Cowboy” and “Red Scare,” respectively – in an uneasy alliance as they work to neutralize the common threat.
Ritchie, as he has done very effectively with his other films, directs the flow of the movie at varying paces, with the action scenes coming fast and furiously, but with an effective juxtaposition when other scenes slow down for character development, plot deepening, and of course the “how did they do that?” explanations that spies do so love to give. It’s worth noting that Ritche also wrote the screenplay as well, and even though the film has roots in the old-school TV series, lots of what you see on screen has a very fresh vibe. Setting the tale in the 1960s was, in my opinion, an excellent move; this allows the story to stay “contemporary” with what came before in the TV series, and allowed for points of view and situational developments that feel very different than today’s tech-heavy spy thrillers.
If there’s any major complaints that seem to be circulating about the film, it’s that the pacing of the story is too stop-and-go, and that the lead actors and actresses don’t have effective chemistry with each other. I find both of these arguments to be rather moot. As I previously mentioned, the pacing of the film felt just fine to me, and I actually appreciate a movie that can shift dramatic gears instead of hammering you over the head with all-action-all-the-time or tear-jerking from the first scene straight into the final scene. As for the acting: the three main characters are German, American, and Russian, and the story is set smack-dab in the middle of The Cold War, so of course these extremely different nationality-personalities aren’t going to completely gel! To me, this is part of what this movie so entertaining: the different opinions and character quirks, based largely on their ethnic and nationalistic backgrounds, makes for great “odd-couple” type of pairings throughout the various scenarios the characters find themselves in during the film.
Some interesting bits of side trivia here before we wrap things up. The original characters and storyline from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. television series were created in part by Ian Fleming, a name you might recognize as the creator of another well-known spy: James Bond. Indeed, the original working title for the TV show was Ian Fleming’s Solo, incorporating both the author’s name along with the lead character for maximum publicity. As the series’ story evolved and Illya became more of a focus, the title shifted as well. And in case you’re dying to know – it’s only explained very quickly in the film – U.N.C.L.E. stands for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, a nod to the multi-national approach to collaborative problem-solving that was emerging in the 1960s era.
It’s a “smart” action film that is a welcome attraction in a time of year that traditionally doesn’t see many “cool” films coming through the box office. I’m still not 100% sure whether this praise will hold up against multiple viewings done in times where the other viable options aren’t so scarce, but for now, color me seriously impressed with The Man from U.N.C.L.E.