Based on the 1964-68 TV series created by Sam Rolfe, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is an old-school spy caper with droll wit to spare. Being acquainted with said source material might be good for nostalgia's sake, but, as sleekly directed by Guy Ritchie (2011's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
") and co-written by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, familiarity isn't a prerequisite. 1960s-retro in nature but thankfully without the casual physical abuse and objectification of women found in Sean Connery-era James Bond, the film drifts from one set-piece to the next while barely working up a sweat. It's pure fluff as far as globe-trotting espionage adventures go and approximately as deep as a kiddie pool, but there is something rather pleasing about its mid-level charms and lack of bombastic fuss. It helps, too, that the cast is perhaps its most winning feature, harkening back to a time when lush scenery and sheer star-quality allure were enough to get viewers through the slightest of plots.
At the height of the Cold War, in a post-Cuban Missile Crisis 1963, two highly skilled specialists from different worlds find themselves joining forces. When American-art-thief-turned-CIA-agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) first cross paths, they do not exactly hit it off. As it turns out, though, their missions are precisely the same. Urged by their respective bosses, they begrudgingly team up to infiltrate an undercover criminal organization looking to sell nuclear weapons. Assisting in their efforts is Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a British mechanic yearning to escape East Germany whose estranged rocket-scientist father (Christian Berkel)a man who once worked for the Nazisis rumored to be delivering the cataclysmic warhead to icy Italian aristocrat Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).
"The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (or, United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) easily blends a winking sense of humor with a story taken seriously. Director Guy Ritchie gives the film a super-cool sheen apparent not only in his cast, but also in his frisky tone and brisk technical prowess. The colorful vintage costuming and production design are impeccable, while the use of split-screens and offbeat cinematographic maneuvers courtesy of John Mathieson (2011's "X-Men: First Class
") add welcome visual spark to a narrative that is nothing special. Ritchie does not underestimate the comic power of a solidly conceived background sight gag, either, finding creatively vervy ways to portray a speedboat chase and the hilariously ghastly demise of a torture-happy villain.
Henry Cavill (2013's "Man of Steel
") plays the calm-under-pressure Napoleon Solo with a natural suave nonchalance. The British-born actor's American accent is arguably less instinctive and at times appears to be holding him back from completely letting loose in the role. His chemistry with Armie Hammer (2013's "The Lone Ranger
"), as Illya Kuryakin, is on more solid footing; in their nicknames for each other ("Cowboy" and "Red Peril," respectively) and in the underlying tension between characters that could easily be mistaken for sexual, there are compelling unspoken layers at work that only increase the intrigue of their relationship. Decked out with a Russian accent that he nicely takes control of after an early hesitant scene or two, Armie Hammer is an irresistible Illya Kuryakin, glimmers of coy, disarming mischievousness peeking behind his poker-faced exterior. For a part that demands a deadpan delivery most of the time, Hammer's ability to nevertheless give him a likable, clear-cut personality is impressive.
Fresh off her breakthrough performance in 2015's "Ex Machina
," Alicia Vikander proves a divine foil-turned-partner as the spirited Gaby, holding her own next to her male co-stars. Her flirtatious moments with Illya are surprisingly sexy despiteor maybe because oftheir restraint, a gaze into each other's eyes as she tries to coax him into dancing to Solomon Burke's "Cry to Me" eliciting more romantic fireworks than, for example, the entirety of 2015's "Fifty Shades of Grey
." Just when it seems a memorable villain is missing from the proceedings, along comes Elizabeth Debicki (2013's "The Great Gatsby
") to run away with her every moment. As smooth as silk and as unforgiving as a wasp, Debicki's Victoria is an unsuspectingly commanding femme fatale
whose villainy is matched only by her regality.
"The Man from U.N.C.L.E." moves at an involving pace, its action sequences (including bravura auto-chase bookends) deriving from the necessity of the storytelling rather than as excuses to toss explosions and special effects onto the screen. When they arrive, which is only sporadically, they make contextual sense and are more satisfying because of their self-discipline. The main attraction, anyway, is the easy-breezy interplay between the ensemble and Ritchie's embracing of broad farcical strokes with more dramatically sound interludes rooted closer to reality. As the film comes to a close, there are a handful of false endings and a feeling that, if this project were successful enough to be serialized, there is certainly room for stronger, more original storylines and weightier character explorations. Until then, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." achieves what it sets out to do, a slick spy throwback bridging modern sensibilities with '60s-chic reverence.