Guy Ritchie has always made films about men – usually charismatic men who are very good at what they do – and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., his adaptation of the TV series of the same name, is nothing new in that respect. But it is nevertheless one of his best films, because it fits his style better than most.
The men in question are Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), secret agents for the US and Russia respectively, who are forced to team up in order to uncover a nuclear plot. They are joined by Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose father may or may not be helping build a bomb for some bad people.
Although Gaby plays a fairly crucial role in the narrative (and is nicely played by Vikander), the film is primarily about the suave, comedy-inflected hijinks of Solo and Kuryakin, and it has to be said that Ritchie and his co-writer Lionel Wigram have penned a script which is frequently pretty funny. It helps that the two leads, in particular Cavill, give confident performances that play to their strengths. Cavill – in a role originally earmarked for George Clooney – shows heretofore unseen comic talents, delivering a few brilliantly droll one liners, while Hammer does well opposite him in a slightly less glamorous, slightly more straight role.
Ritchie and his set/costume designers conjure up a believably comic-book take on the 1960s – the film is an adrenaline shot of colour and whimsy, not attempting to portray an entirely ‘real’ world. In much the same way that he did with Sherlock Holmes, Ritchie chooses a world that his style can inflect, but wisely chooses to keep his more flamboyant directorial urges to a minimum, making this a much more enjoyable experience than, say, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, in which he let his attempts at flair inhibit the fun.
First and foremost this is a fun ride. The plot, if one actually looks at it, isn’t as complex as the film would like us to believe, but that doesn’t matter because the interplay between the characters is winning, and some of the set pieces – in particular an escape involving a speedboat and a truck – are genuinely memorable. There are instances in the first act where the script isn’t quite so slick, but as the characters settle down, these are mostly ironed out. There’s good support, too, from Elizabeth Debicki as chief villain Victoria Vinciguerra and a cameoing Hugh Grant, who gets some terrific lines late on.
It’s not all entirely smooth sailing – one action set piece involving a three-way chase across an island is pretty dull – but this a gutsy and broadly successful attempt at establishing, let’s face it, a new franchise. It’s been compared to the Bond films, inevitably, and the comparisons certainly ring true (just don’t expect any Daniel Craig-era brooding), but this is a far funnier film than Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was more farcical but occupied broadly similar territory.
The Man Fr om U.N.C.L.E. is pulpy and fluffy, but knows it is, and never sacrifices its joie de vivre. I’d like to see this cast together again – it’d probably be a lot of fun.