Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, RocknRolla) is at the helm of this fresh take on the popular TV series, which ran for four seasons from 1964 to ’68. Set against the backdrop of the early ‘60s, at the height of the Cold War, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. centres on CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and his KGB equivalent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).
Forced to put aside longstanding hostilities, the two team up to stop an international criminal organisation intent on destabilising the fragile balance of power through the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The pair’s only lead is the whip smart auto mechanic daughter, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander from Ex Machina), of a vanished German scientist, who was once a favourite of Hitler. You see it is he who is the key to infiltrating the criminal body. They must race against time to find him and prevent a worldwide catastrophe.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also features Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) and Hugh Grant. The screenplay is by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, who previously collaborated on re-imagining the classic detective Sherlock Holmes in two films. This is one fast-paced, action-packed, sexy and stylish thriller, positively dripping with droll humour. The scripting is delicious, the settings are spectacular, while the accoutrements by way of cars and boats and lodgings and designer clothes are equal standouts. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Going back to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie is clearly drawn to the male-to-male dynamic that is such an integral part of the success of both films.
The first time elite CIA operative Solo meets his formidable KGB counterpart, Kuryakin, they are trying to kill one another. Both have been sent to extract the same vital German asset from behind the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War and taking out the competition in the process would just be icing on the cake. Days later, after being informed by their respective handlers that they will now be working together on the case, murdering each other is unfortunately – albeit temporarily – off the table. So in some respects, it’s a buddy movie … apart from the fact that, as Henry Cavill puts it, “they kick the living daylights out of each other as soon as they meet.”
The film opens in 1963. The U.S. and the Soviet Union are locked in a tense, high-stakes game of chicken over nuclear arms supremacy. The wartime research of former Nazi scientists is still at a premium on the not-so-open market. A 12-foot concrete wall divides post-World War II Berlin and it’s there, in its long shadows, that Solo and Kuryakin first size each other up in a breakneck, winner-take-all street chase.
What is so great about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is that it distills everything that made the ‘60s cool, from its art, fashion and music to its attitude. This is retro updated for a 21st century audience and it is oh so chic.
Alicia Vikander’s character Gaby can certainly hold her own against the two men, who are heavily into one upmanship, but she chooses to positively revel in their rivalry. The Swedish actress is fast establishing herself as a highly capable and extremely attractive leading lady.
Overall, I can only sum up by saying Guy Ritchie is really on his game here. There is so much going on that a second look wouldn’t go astray. Rated M, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is, above all, buckets of fun and scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki and Hugh Grant
DVD release: 16 December 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television