Movie Review: “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant
Guy Ritchie

Hollywood hasn’t been shy about its love for sequels, reboots and remakes this summer, but as far as big screen adaptations of mildly popular television shows go, you could do a lot worse than “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” In fact, though director Guy Ritchie has admitted that he wasn’t overly familiar with the 1960s TV series before signing on to the project, it’s the ideal property for a filmmaker like Ritchie to tackle, because it allows him to cherry-pick the show’s best bits and put his own spin on the material without worrying about stepping on too many toes. That approach worked well for his “Sherlock Holmes” movies, and it’s equally as effective with “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” an entertaining homage to retro spy films that makes up for what it lacks in substance with plenty of laughs and undeniable style.

In 1963, during the height of the Cold War, the United States and Russia agree to temporarily put aside their differences and combine forces when they learn that a secret criminal organization has kidnapped former Nazi scientist Udo Teller to build an atom bomb. The CIA and KGB assign their top agents – American thief-turned-spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and hard-nosed Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) – to infiltrate the organization led by the beautiful but deadly Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) in order to rescue Dr. Teller and prevent a global disaster. Assisting Napoleon and Illya on their mission is Teller’s daughter, Gabby (Alicia Vikander), a plucky mechanic whose uncle is their only lead in locating the bomb.

As you might expect, Napoleon and Illya don’t get along at first, but that’s part of the fun of putting these two guys in the same room together, especially when their initial meeting takes place under very different circumstances. (Basically, they’re trying to kill each other.) While Cavill and Hammer may not sound like the most exciting duo on paper, they form a surprisingly charming team with lots of great banter between them. It’s the kind of polite but playful English wit that’s present in most of Ritchie’s films, and it allows the movie to be self-aware without resorting to winking satire, unlike former collaborator Matthew Vaughn, whose own love letter to spy movies, “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” had its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.

The three leads are solid in their respective roles and complement each other really well, which is a small miracle considering the merry-go-round of actors that were attached to the project at some point during development. Cavill displays real leading man qualities as the roguish, James Bond-like spy; Hammer is perfectly cast as the volatile enforcer; and Vikander holds her own as the much-needed female component of the group, and looks good doing it dressed in an array of ‘60s mod fashion. Though Hugh Grant is underused as the shadowy government agent from which the film gets its name, that’s mainly because his character serves as nothing more than a precursor to future sequels, which Ritchie seems fairly confident of judging by the movie’s ending.

But while “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” delivers a lively blend of comedy and clever action sequences, it suffers from a mundane story that’s almost too predictable. The film also runs a little long despite its relatively straightforward plot, and the half-baked romance between Illya and Gabby never really takes off, but what’s most surprising is just how forgettable it is by the next day. That doesn’t make “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” any less entertaining in the moment, however, and that’s all you can ask for in a light-hearted popcorn flick like this. Cavill and Hammer are so fun in their roles that further adventures would certainly be welcomed, but failing that, Ritchie would be wise to seek out more projects within the spy genre, because it’s well-tailored to his strengths as a filmmaker.