Henry Cavill (“Man of Steel”) and Armie Hammer (“J. Edgar”) play former adversaries-turned-buddy spies to the hilt. It started out on the rough side. While both have colorful backgrounds and special talents, they’re polar-opposites. Cavill is Napoleon Solo, a former art thief turned CIA agent, charming and cavalier in his ways. Hammer is Illya Kuryakin, a volatile yet steadfast KGB operative.
The American agent and Russian operative, when introduced by their respective handler that they would be working together as partners, make it clear that they’re only doing this for the greater good. Sizing each other up, they try to kill each other on their first day of working together. Their joint mission is to infiltrate a criminal network and dismantle its plan to misuse technology and propagate nuclear weapons, subverting the power balance during the Cold War period.
Believe it or not I have watched the TV series of ‘The Man From U. N.C.L.E. recall the two charismatic leads, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum and it was their onscreen chemistry that held the show together, no matter how outrageous the story lines became. Thank God director Guy Ritchie chose to follow this criterion for his big screen adaptation. Can I say nostalgic even though my age (24) hasn’t reached that scoop.
As the movie begins, it is 1963 and Napoleon makes his way into East Germany to rescue a young lady by the name of Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) and bring her over to the West. Rumor has it that her father Udo (Christian Berkel), a scientist, has joined forces with some nefarious bad guys and is in the midst of creating a nuclear bomb for them, capable of killing millions. While trying to make their way out of East Germany, they encounter Christian Berkel, a KGB agent who almost prevents them from leaving. The next day however, both men are informed by their bosses, that the U.S. and Russia are teaming up to try and prevent this nuclear bomb from being detonated and that they must work together.
Naturally, both men are skeptical and dubious of each other but over time, they come to understand and respect one another. Nonetheless, when it is suggested by their superiors that they both assume fake identities in order to try to infiltrate the bad guy’s lair and that Gaby is to accompany them on their mission, in the hopes that she will be able to lure her father out of hiding, both men must put their differences aside and together, concentrate on their assignment if they are to successfully thwart the detonation of a nuclear bomb and bring the terrorists to justice. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” never takes itself too seriously and for the most part, it plays tongue-in-cheek.
Solo and Illya’s odd couple pairing is woefully underused, too. We know that they’re two sides of an ideological coin and a thief and a thug at heart, but this movie doesn’t even attempt to serve that tension. Mostly it’s silent glares and the occasional strategic disagreement: the most amusing of which are over clothes. Perhaps this film should have been an all-out farce.
What pleasure does exist is in the carefully crafted aesthetics and the exaggerated acting, especially Cavill’s devilish charm. Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki (as the glamorous big bad) are deliciously cool.
Ritchie, meanwhile, experiments with in-depth tangents and bold, suggestive subtitles, as though he’s attempting something approximating Tarantino-lite. It doesn’t come close to that, but the catchy, perfectly timed music choices do go a long way in making the overall experience much more fun.
Unlike most other spy capers such as James Bond, Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible, the film knows when to switch from lighthearted to no-nonsense and still keep you preoccupied. The performances are top-notch all around and the finale leaves everything open for the inevitable sequel. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” could be smarter. It could be faster. It could have given Hugh Grant more to do. But, in this case, beautiful, adequate and escapist is almost enough.