The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Saving the world never goes out of style

After about a decade of trying to get The Man from U.N.C.L.E. green lit, a project that appeared near impossible to get off the ground, timing for Warner Bros. couldn’t be any better, as spy films seem to be making a welcome return — recent hits such as Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) spring to mind — with no better time than ‘now’ to unleash U.N.C.L.E. onto the world; a robustly brisk, sexy and stylish international adventure, with a dashing mix of intrigue, espionage, double-crossings and a shot of humor, that is as much about the rocky hurly-burly relationship between two sparring superspies — CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) — as it is about the dangerous mission they’re assigned to carry out. Delving into the duplicitous realm of mystery and deception, this time around, is well-known UK filmmaker Guy Ritchie — most famous for his husky, knockabout crime capers Snatch (2000) and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) — who implants his gritty and bustling photographic flair, off-beat comedy and gruff rough-and-tumble attitude to the sleight of hand proceedings while simultaneously capturing that tasteful and lavish 1960s peppy, prime time telly feel of its 1964 small-screen forefather.

Based on the popular television show of the same name, created by Sam Rolfe — which ran from 1964 to 1968 — The Man from U.N.C.L.E. takes place in the early 1960s and is set against the backdrop of Europe at the height of the Cold War — though not really explained in the film, the acronym U.N.C.L.E. actually stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Centering on and around U.N.C.L.E. agents Solo and Kuryakin, who are forced to put aside their longstanding hostilities, the two rival informers unwillingly band together on a joint covert operation in order to stop a mysterious international criminal organization — led by the über-wealthy but morally bankrupt power couple, Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) — hell bent on destabilizing the fragile balance of control through the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology.

Super Spy!
Super Spy!

A twelve-foot concrete wall divides post-World War II Berlin, and it is here, in its noir inspired chiaroscuro visuals — long shadows, stark contrasts and dramatic imagery — that enemies turned allies, Solo and Kuryakin, first ruffle each other up, in a fast-moving, winner-takes-all street chase; their ‘prize,’ Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a whip-smart East German auto mechanic, and the estranged daughter of a vanished German scientist, once Hitler’s favorite rocket research expert, Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), presumed missing, working for Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra. Now, with Gaby standing as the agent’s key to infiltrating this outlaw consortium, and their solitary lead, as she may be the only ‘bait’ the cloak-and-dagger men have to flush out Udo Teller, the three improbable comrades clandestinely unite, launching both world powers — the U.S. and Germany — into a race against time to find the ‘Doc’ before his specific and rather hazardous knowledge is channeled into weaponry that could obliterate whole countries, in turn, preventing a worldwide catastrophe from breaking out.

With a strong attention-grabbing, politically charged narrative, which unites two clashing nations, both super powers — who team up to neutralize a global threat — the rivalry between sworn enemies turned teammates, elite CIA agent, Solo, and his formidable KGB counterpart, Kuryakin, works as the real ‘spine’ of the story, as the film is largely focused on the evolution of this unlikely and unpredicted partnership. Watching these two distinctly contrasting personalities attempt to cooperate, collaborate and act as a single unit is a genuine hoot, especially given that one represents capitalist America and the other communist Russia; both men are polar-opposites in all that they think, say and do. Filmmakers exploit this concept brilliantly and have a lot of fun with these contrasting personas, bringing to view their differences at every opportune moment. The male-to-male relationship, which Ritchie has mastered so well within his subsequent pictures — just look at Snatch (2000) and Sherlock Holmes (2009) — along with the script’s playful banter, stands to be The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s biggest boon, as the quarreling agent’s bickering and repartee — be it in insulting one another’s technology or mocking their competitor’s methods or practice — brings about some of the flick’s most memorable scenes and heartiest laughs. The fact that we’re given adversaries who, not only can’t annihilate one another, but need to learn to work together as ‘one,’ even if they don’t necessarily trust each other, is a rich premise, that’s bursting with internal and external conflict.

Alicia Vikander makes for a picture perfect decoy!
Alicia Vikander makes for a picture perfect decoy!

Breathing life into our inharmonious protagonists are Henry Cavill, Man of Steel (2013), and Armie Hammer, The Social Network (2010), forming two thirds of the U.N.C.L.E. squad. Cavill’s adept repertoire of the suave and often self-serving American agent, Napoleon Solo, is simply superb, as he embodies the quintessentially smooth and sophisticated double agent impeccably; from his trendy greased-back hairdo and chiseled caricature-esque exterior, all the way to his 1960s noir-inspired speech and articulation — both diction and delivery — down to his urbane mannerisms; to top it all off, Solo is fitted in natty up-to-the-minute tailored outfits, suits and garments affiliated with the radical ‘cultural’ era. With Solo being somewhat anti-establishment, having acquired his skill set dealing art and antiques on the black market — eventually getting caught by the CIA, who offer him an ultimatum: go to jail or work for them — he comes off as the unorthodox member of the dynamic duo. Illya Kuryakin, on the other hand, is a classic, by-the-book type spy, and the youngest agent in the KGB to have attained such a top ranking status. Wonderfully portrayed by Armie Hammer, who renders the character with a stiff and slightly rigid, campy German accent, Kuryakin brings a more volatile and buttoned-down point of view to the team; he’s the ‘yin’ in Solo’s ‘yang,’ so to speak. Referring to Solo as ‘The Cowboy,’ due to his cavalier attitude, Kuryakin exists as the tightly wound, hot-blooded of the two, with Solo being rather cool, calm and unconventional, making the friction and friendship between the leads quite tongue-in-cheek; it’s interesting to see just how these disparate personalities reach their own private détente. So, not only are our leading lads dissimilar in allegiance, having contradictory domestic affairs, but also in personality, acquiring their abilities in mismatched ways.

Synonymous with spy films are the sexy seductresses and the over-the-top power-crazed foes, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. delivers both in spades. Raised in my hometown of Melbourne, Australian, Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby (2013), stars as megalomaniac Victoria Vinciguerra, an ambitious, good-looking, ice blonde from hardscrabble beginnings — having married a wealthy Italian playboy on looks and little else — with Debicki playing up the self-created, enterprising vixen’s wickedness and sinister glamor to theatrical levels; whereas her husband, Alexander — with Italian Luca Calvani, who’s perhaps best known to American audiences for being a series regular in the long-running daytime drama, The Bold and the Beautiful (1987), giving the handsome race car driver an authentic European flavor — brings the financier of Victoria’s evil schemes to life with a devilish sense of charm. Rounding out the main cast is picturesque Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina (2015), in the role of Gaby Teller, who makes the transition from humble garage mechanic to couture-draped arm trophy; attired in colorful vintage threads and adorned with psychedelic circular specs, Vikander implants the straight-talking pin-up with personality and complexity, easily raising the feisty heroine beyond her ritzy and ravish ‘eye candy’ status. Entering proceedings at the eleventh hour is Hugh Grant, About a Boy (2002), who stars as the enigmatic Waverly — the only other familiar character from the series, besides Solo and Kuryakin, to appear in the film — an unflappable debonair who turns out to be a significant power broker in the British spy arena — a guise which isn’t fully revealed until much later on in the game — with Grant providing his droll wry humor and egotistical charisma to the quick-witted Englishman.

The Cold War never looked so swank.
The Cold War never looked so swank.

Opting to retain the initial property’s Cold War Context — and all its cultural and political hallmarks and neo-fascist vibes — along with its 1960s retro aesthetic, production designer Oliver Scholl, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), does an outstanding job in re-imagining the world of ‘60s, giving the flick an authentic spy-versus-spy feel, taking inspiration from James Bond movies, television’s Get Smart (1965) and Italian classics such as La Dolce Vita (1960). Perfectly capturing the uniqueness of that time period while making it accessible to contemporary audiences, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. distills everything that made the smashing ‘60s cool — from its fashion, art and music, to its perspectives and attitudes – crafting a spot-on yet modest vibe that’s both passé and undeniably 21st century. Delivering the crispness and refinement of today with a distinctly ‘60s quality, the score, composed by Daniel Pemberton, The Counselor (2013), truly compliments the nostalgic visuals of the ‘sunny’ bygone age. Making use of timeworn instruments — from vintage harpsichords to old basses and guitars — the soundtrack is often radical, with its almost poly-rhythmic percussion echoing through the many action scenes, while its orchestral big-band complexities and ambiguities ring true to the ‘all hits’ era, successfully capturing the zeitgeist of the pivotal decade.

Whilst The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is not a fully-fledged actioner, the film does offer some thrilling set pieces, which range from the ‘burning rubber’ and ‘breaking glass’ of its tango-like opening shoot-out, set on the streets of Berlin, to the comedic beats of a harbor pursuit, concluding with a truck sinking a boat, but not before one of our protagonists takes a break from all the bullet-dodging and cracks open a fine bottle of wine while indulging in a light snack. And, what’s a Guy Ritchie feature without a visceral and dynamic fist-cracking fracas, seen in the climactic off-road quarrel at the Vinciguerra Estate, where our heroes seize whatever method of transport they find lying about, and each new twist and turn alters the balance of power; these sequences are lively, entertaining and excellently choreographed, successfully walking that fine line between comedy, action and suspense. Alas, this brings us to our cynics, who, in the end, may argue that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. suffers from a case of all ‘style’ and little ‘substance,’ but I beg to differ, as this spy show wins out for being one of the ‘best dressed’ films of the season, with enough going on in terms of both plot and character interplay.

' ... this might sting a little ...'
‘ … this might sting a little …’

Ultimately, Guy Ritchie’s unmistakeably ‘cool,’ often melodramatic take on the classic TV series comes across as a polished, slick, perky and exuberated affair, stippled with nods to cinephiles and spy-film fanatics throughout — heck! Even Pussy Galore’s helicopter from Goldfinger (1964) makes an unexpected appearance. From kaleidoscopic split-screens, reminiscent of ‘60s spy capers, to lush and sleek European landmarks — including the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and the Grand Palace Hotel — The Man from U.N.C.L.E. encapsulates the flower power epoch of the 1960s seamlessly, and, with a cultivated mix of action, intellect, grand sights and chic, plus an incredibly confident and capable cast, this throwback flick is a fitting introductory picture to kick-start the potential 007-variety franchise; I’d be keen to sit through a few more of these U.N.C.L.E. escapades, especially if Ritchie and co return for a second and third outing.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia