Guy Ritchie is a polarising figure in the world of cinema. Just about everyone you care to talk to will say they love his early work – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000) – but he then blotted his copybook with the widely-panned 2002 misadventure Swept Away, starring then-wife Madonna. But he clawed back some lost ground with his two Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr. Although they might not have been critics’ darlings, they were box office hits, making back many times their budgets. Now he turns his attention to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a big screen adventure (loosely) based on the 1960s television series of the same name.
There are certainly elements of the distinctive Ritchie style in this thoroughly enjoyable romp of a film; but Ritchie and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram (who also collaborated on Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes film) have made two critically important choices here. First, they’ve decided to set the film in its “natural environment” of the 1960s (I’m so relieved they decided against trying to update or “re-boot” it); and second, they struck just the right balance between seriousness and humour to carry the plot along.
When the film opens it’s 1963 and CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) finds himself in East Berlin. He’s there to meet Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of Dr Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a German rocket scientist who’s mysteriously disappeared and who possibly holds the fate of the world in his hands. Things get hairy however when determined KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), who’s been trailing Solo makes his move. Solo and Gaby escape over the Wall by the skin of their teeth. Once in West Berlin, it emerges that Gaby’s father may have fallen into the hands of a shadowy criminal organisation bent on developing its own rogue nuclear weapon, and thus jeopardising the uneasy peace of the Cold War. Their only link to Dr Teller is Gaby’s uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth), who is working for the multinational Vinciguerra empire headed by Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). The CIA believes the Vinciguerra company is a front for neo-Nazis, and thus a likely candidate to be linked to Dr Teller’s disappearance. Solo and Gaby are tasked to travel to Rome and infiltrate the Vinciguerra organisation, find Dr Teller and retrieve all his research. There’s just one wrinkle – given the global implications, their partner in this dangerous mission will be Kuryakin.
What follows is 116 minutes of carefully controlled spy-jinks as Solo and Kuryakin inveigle their way into the viper’s nest. Along the way there are swanky hotels, swankier social outings and high-octane (both literal and figurative) action. As mentioned, Ritchie and Wigram bring plenty of humour to the table, notably in the understandably tense relationship between Solo and Kuryakin. That said, the script gives us enough to actually care about the characters and what happens to them, even though much of it is quite silly (in the manner of many of the James Bond films). It’s all powered along by a pumping soundtrack, combining Daniel Pemberton’s original score and tracks typifying the era from the likes of Roberta Flack, Louis Prima and Nina Simone.
This is basically an origin story. In the TV series, the U.N.C.L.E. team (featuring Robert Vaughn as Solo and David McCallum as Kuryakin) was already in place. This film tells the story of how they came to be together. The addition of Gaby to the team is a welcome twist on the formula. The other main character from the TV show, Waverley, is played here by Hugh Grant; although he takes some time to appear on screen.
The cast is headlined by two actors seeking a degree of redemption – Henry Cavill (shaking off the cape from Man of Steel) and Armie Hammer (escaping the mask from The Lone Ranger). Cavill seems to be in his element as the suave, Bond-esque Solo, and he pulls of the role with some aplomb. Hammer shows some deft comic timing in the less-flashy role of Kuryakin, and makes it work as the stolid Russian. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) brings a little glamour (helped by some authentic 1960s fashions) and a lot of determination to the role of Gaby. While I wasn’t completely convinced by the chemistry between Hammer and Vikander, the trio works well together. Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) is suitably British as the buttoned-down Waverley; but Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) gets some of the film’s best moments as the svelte but ruthless Victoria Vinciguerra (that surname, by the way, translates roughly as “win the war” – a reference to the character’s neo-fascist sympathies and goal in the film).
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is lightweight entertainment, but I doubt anyone will be going into it thinking it’s going to be an intellectual exercise. This is an action-comedy that delivers exactly what it promises – a lot of fun.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Dibecki and Hugh Grant
Release date: 13 August 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television