***** SPOILER ALERT *****
This review will be discussing plot points which may be considered spoilers. Consider yourselves warned.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E is a straight up man.
Growing up I never cared much for the Bond films or Mission Impossible movies. However, recently over the years my feelings towards these kinds of movies have softened—in most part due to the quality of two of the last three Bond films. So, when I saw the trailers for The Man from U.N.C.L.E I was hooked. It looked slick, sexy and stylish, all elements that I feel have been missing in movies as of late. Based on the mid-60’s TV series of the same name, that ran for 100+ episodes and starred Robert Vuangh (Bullitt (1968) and The Magnificent Seven (1960)) and David McCallum (NCIS), this movie was about a super-secret spy organization called U.N.C.L.E that teamed up an American CIA agent and Soviet KGB agent.
Once again, movie makers churn out a remake/reboot of some kind, but somehow I feel I can forgive this, since the original show is about fifty years old. Besides, I have to admit I never watched the show. It wasn’t one of the lucky ones that got rerun on Nic at Night when I was a kid.
U.N.C.L.E was product of the Cold War and to the movie’s credit, it remains in the Cold War. It is set right after the building of the Berlin Wall. I liked this approach much more than a ham-handed attempt to “update” or “modernize” it. Trying to make U.N.C.L.E. a War on Terror movie just doesn’t feel right.
While the plot may not be original—at all in fact—it at least makes sense. An underground NAZI/Fascist crime organization has kidnapped a former NAZI nuclear scientist and has forced him to make a nuclear weapon. They plan to use the weapon and then sell the plans to the highest reasonable offer.
My beef with a lot of spy films over the years, and really all movies that have the megalomaniacal villain is that, normally, the motivation never fits the mayhem. In this case it seems slightly more reasonable that a couple of decades after WWII there would be Fascists still either seeking revenge or trying to topple the world power structure with a nuke.
As one would guest this would radically change the balance of power in the world and while the US and USSR obviously didn’t like each other they were at least willing to come together to fight their old enemy, Fascism.
The two super powers team up their top spies, American CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill Man of Steel) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, The Lone Ranger). The two are tasked by their respective handlers to work together and help Gaby, an East Berlin car mechanic wiz (Alicia Vikander, or Ava from Ex Machina) and daughter of the abducted NAZI nuclear scientist, find her father and to bring down the crime syndicate run by Victoria (relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki Everest).
While the plot may be a bit old hat, UNCLE really shines with its style. Director Guy Richie (Sherlock Holmes) has created a true fantasy 60’s world. This is a clean, slick world of gadgets, intrigue, and action. The men wear expensive tailor-made suits that are always pressed, and the women wear sexy dresses. You can almost say that the fashion of the movie was another character. This is not the Mad Men universe. The grime and tough truths of a pre-Vietnam, Cold War world is not seen here. There are moments where Richie holds the shot, as if to shoot a portrait. His use of shadows, light, and his actors in the frame was refreshing after what has felt like years of uninspired, television style direction.
U.N.C.L.E is old school sexy. There were times, not often enough by my measure, where we got a lot skin showing but just stopped shy of showing what mainstream American audiences would consider the naughty bits. This was always a classic 60’s staple that was good to see again.
Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo was the real surprise for me. Solo is a former Army sergeant, black marketer and master thief who, in order to avoid a rather hefty prison sentence, is in the service of the CIA. I had a total man-crush on this character almost from the start. I don’t often use the word debonair (in part since I’m not 100% sure what it means) but after looking it up on Google, I can safely say that Solo is the definition of the word: always cool and calm, even when his partner is being chased around in a lagoon by a gun boat. Solo takes time to enjoy some wine and opera in the cab of a truck before jumping in to help. He is rarely fazed even when beat up, drugged, or shocked, and is always ready with a smartass come back. Not to mention he has a special way with the ladies. One could say that Cavill is a bit wooden but it is a wooden that works here. It may not in other roles, but Cavill recently has been smart to pick up roles that play to his strengths.
Solo’s teammate is the short tempered Soviet KGB super-agent Illya Kuryakin. While not as charismatic as Solo, he is the perfect foil. The two have abilities that complement each other. Where Illya is stiff and serious, Solo is sarcastic and light; when Illya is fired up Solo is calm. Solo tries to avoid violence and making a scene, preferring to use his pick pocketing and thief skills. Illya, on the other hand, is a physical machine. He can outrun or outfight pretty much anyone. It was fun seeing all the ways Illya had to kick the crap out of someone.
The new addition is Alicia Vikander’s Gaby. The show only focused on the two men up until season four. Gaby, a character not in the show, is the wildcard. Her skill as a driver and mechanic come in handy. The sexual tension between her and Illya is vintage. While most of the movie is the two agents keeping a close eye on her, she is really the most important player in the film.
Elizabeth Debicki’s Victoria, the leader of the fascist crime organization, is not a big break from the norm, but is in ways I care about. She is less prone to long explanatory speeches and cheesy one-liners. In movies like this one, the super-genius bad guy or girl tends to do something so stupid to get caught that even some in the seats are thinking “I could have caught that!” Happily, that wasn’t the case here. The protagonist team really did have to out-smart her in a believable way.
Hugh Grant makes his mark in the film as Waverly the chief of U.N.C.L.E. in the show. His appearances are brief and at the end but pleasant.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. brings us some retro fun from those who like spy flicks and provides enough action and humor to be enjoyable for those like myself who are big fans of the genre but still want to enjoy a solid movie.
3.5 Death Stars
– by Joseph De Paul