Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is some new masterpiece from Guy Ritchie. There’s still traces of some of his more frustrating proclivities at play here – plotlines that don’t coalesce, character beats that fall from the mark, stylistic flourishes that hinder rather than help. Yet after the likes of RocknRolla and the two Sherlock Holmes films that felt dour and plastic, this joyful delving into Kodachromatic nostalgia proves to be a hell of a lot of fun.
Based on a television spy show from the 1960s that hasn’t been mined for the last few decades by Tom Cruise, the contrast between this film and Mission: Impossible is actually salient to the success of the work. It’s not trying to be “big Bond” with massive set pieces, but instead presents a more sly and cunning spy thriller.
Set against a cold war backdrop where the Soviets and Americans are fighting off Nazis provides a compelling canvas to present this kind of lark. Brit Henry Cavill plays the Yank, while the American Armie Hammer adds a virtual sickle to his name when portraying a rage-filled KGB super spy. Swede Alicia Vikander, recently seen in the terrific Ex Machina, plays the East German mechanic who joins them to combat a nuclear threat. It’s perhaps no coincidence that both summer spy films are elevated by the inclusion of extremely talented (and attractive) Swedish actresses, providing just the right dash of exotic beauty and steely determination on screen.
Jared Harris grapples with his best American accent and tonally that’s the only misstep – where Cavill’s lecherous lead dons the drawl convincingly, there’s something about Harris’ growl that doesn’t quite play to these local ears. Other than that, the rest of the cast is perfectly cromulent, including a certain big-ish name actor whose appearance was a pleasant surprise but one I’m betting was spoiled by the trailer. Elizabeth Debicki plays the main baddie, and she certainly appeared to be enjoying chewing on the archetypical role.
There’s a nice little subtext about the timing, back when Soviet tech seemed superior to the American equivalent (necessitating a bit more moxy rather than a bag of tricks). It’s an odd couple shtick that thankfully didn’t also add on a love triangle, making for a great little dynamic with our trio of leads.
It’s a breezy film that flows by quickly, and with its lovely style, terrific costumes, and certain degree of well earned smarminess. It feels as if the film’s ambition is to not be ambitious – we’re not here to reinvent the genre, nor are we shackled to audience expectations about the nature of our characters (this isn’t, say, Batman, with all the built in angst about what the character represents).
In a summer where we’ve seen our share of comic book stinkers I think I prefer my protagonists to be a little bit more douchie and a lot less spandexy. I enjoyed the film a lot more than I ever thought I might, and in many ways it’s a refreshing return to form for Ritchie. With elegant and playful split screens, a delightfully bouncy score with some killer source music from the likes of Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and Ennio Morricone, and a well cast ensemble there’s loads to love about the film. Call me crazy but I’m calling Man From U.N.C.L.E. is some of the most fun you’ll have a theatre this summer.