The Brits are playing the Americans, the American is playing the Russian, the Swede is playing the German, and everybody is playing everybody in Guy Ritchie’s accent fluid, punctuation hogging The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Just weeks after Tom Cruise flew into theatres for a fifth Impossible Mission, another name-brand defector from Mother Boobtube is out to prove it’s the top asset in this den of cinematic spies called 2015. While it’s not the cleverest, funniest, smartest, or most consistent espionage flick so far this year, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is certainly the Guy Ritchiest of the bunch, for better and worse.
Co-scripted by Ritchie, along with Sherlock Holmes collaborator Lionel Wigram, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a 5th-grader’s envisioning of a ‘60s spy movie. That’s a compliment. Ritchie, born the same year that the original U.N.C.L.E. series ended its TV run, is a stylist first, dedicated storyteller maybe third or fourth. Second, he’s a casting whiz. What he’s done with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is gathered the hottest schoolyard talent for a game of spies ‘n’ scoundrels dress up. Unlike much of his more recent output, Ritchie’s elementary instincts prove a nice fit for a sultry under-covers romp that seeks to make the Cold War just plain cool.
Refashioning the Iron Curtain into a chic and permeable bead drape, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a mismatched buddy comedy that pits the deadliest agents of two superpowers against a common foe. One is a debonair American thief looking to secure his freedom, not just the interests of a free market; the other is a hulking Soviet wheelman with a dark past and darker wardrobe. Together, they’re Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, dry as a succulent) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, accent MVP), the CIA and KGB’s best shot at keeping 1962 the year that Earth only almost blows itself to pieces.
Hyper-masculine professionals are the stock (and two smoking barrels) heroes for most Ritchie joints, but The Man From U.N.C.L.E. takes its characters in new, if no-more-refined-than-usual places for the English director. After nearly killing each other in the movie’s opening action scene, Solo and Illya start their partnership with a bathroom scuffle you expect to end in an eponymous cry of submission. Phallic innuendo, and comments about the virtue of one another’s mothers constitute the bulk of their detente foreplay. Rather than champions of nuclear-powered ideologies, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. routinely casts Solo and Illya as manchildren squabbling across an international playground.
For a while at least, the jejune charm of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is disarmingly effective. The movie’s juvenile approach to cloak and dagger tropes proves remarkably consistent. A major setpiece ends with the boys having to sneak back to their rooms after bedtime; a former dentist actually is a sadistic torturer; whenever the alpha agents jockey for pole position, the decision often comes down to who has the cooler toys. Flirtation with the opposite sex is done via constant, confident double entendre, but actual sex is just wrestling, or noise heard coming from the neighbouring room.
Sherlock Holmes sometimes snickered at the close relationship between its leads, but The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is far more comfortable with its feminine side. Sartorial acumen isn’t a joke, but in many ways, the entire point of the movie. Cavill and Hammer look good, and that’s mainly what they’re here to do. The same goes for Alicia Vikander as an East German mechanic, and Elizabeth Debicki as a terrorist countess. Vikander doesn’t just drink and scrap along with the boys, but also gets to makeup for (perhaps even trump) the impromptu dance scene she missed out on in April’s Ex Machina. And Debicki, a feline fatale, makes the word “slink” sound rigid. If she and Spy’s Rose Byrne paired up for a comedy about super-villainesses who are so over all this espionage bull$%*@, it’d be a box office juggernaut.
By the third act, you’ll wish you were watching that movie. Through its first hour, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a frothy confection, thanks largely to Ritchie’s willingness to ignore overblown action in the name of an all-out smarm offensive. When the characters are just sniffing around and sneering at one another, strutting fabulously through the movie’s decadent Italian locales, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a good bit of fun. It’s in the last third that the weight of four story credits makes itself known, due to a disastrously ill-conceived series of setpieces that force Ritchie into shooting a game he’s better at talking around than actually playing.
It’s the sad trombone crescendo to a movie that’s otherwise content to mix spumante pop tunes with jazz flute solos for most of its runtime. Jared Harris is another such periphery virtue to be found in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., playing Solo’s American handler as though he’s still smarting from having lost the role of Quinlan in Touch of Evil to Orson Welles. Hugh Grant, as something of a Ritchie insert, plays an important part late in the movie. His assurance that the film’s deflating climax is indeed “entertainment” isn’t made anymore convincing by Grant’s characteristic verbal flop sweat. Yet when he, and Ritchie used the closing scene to promise that Solo and Illya would return, my thoughts were condensed to two letters: O.K.
Superficial charisma and an appealing cast narrowly rescue The Man From U.N.C.L.E. from total collapse.