Review: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Targets Style Over Spying
For its big screen reboot of the classic 60s spy series, Warner Brothers is hoping Guy Ritchie can replicate the success of their earlier Sherlock Holmes adaptations, again favouring witty banter and period detail over the material's more action-oriented elements. The result is an old fashioned romp with a stylish swagger and ripe sense of humour, but its lack of urgency or grand action spectacle could work against it in a crowded summer market place.
A feature film version of the stylish Robert Vaughn/David McCallum TV show has been in development for a couple of decades now, with everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Steven Soderbergh at one time attached to direct. Guy Ritchie feels a perfect fit for the material, in which a CIA agent (Henry Cavill - Man of Steel) and KGB spy (Armie Hammer - The Lone Ranger) are forced to collaborate at the height of the Cold War, in order to track down a missing scientist in Rome and prevent the sale of a nuclear warhead.
As they did for Holmes and Watson, Ritchie and his writing/producing partner Lionel Wigram fill their script with prickly banter between Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, both equally reluctant to work together or relinquish control of the mission. While Cavill and Hammer may lack the natural charisma of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, their mutual contempt is believable, and as they warm to each other, so the audience does to their outwardly stiff personas. Both have shady backstories that paint them as anything but true blue patriots, and when pitted against each other, the film reaps plentiful entertainment from their petty squabbles and rivalries.
Along for the ride is Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander - Ex Machina), a German mechanic from the wrong side of the wall, whose father - a famed Nazi physicist who defected after the war - has now gone missing. Once in Rome, Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), wife of an Italian shipping magnate, is pegged as a potential buyer for Teller's tech, so they go in undercover. Occasionally, Jared Harris and Hugh Grant pop up to bark orders at the instinctively insubordinate pair, but otherwise everyone appears to be winging it.
While there's plenty of talk of uranium, warheads, defection and double-crossings, Ritchie's incarnation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is far more interested in the cars, clothes and shadowy late-night shenanigans that the period has to offer than its politics or historical accuracy. Everyone is dressed immaculately in haute couture of the times and nips around is spiffy sports cars, while the soundtrack seduces with some seriously swinging 60s Euro pop.
Cavill, Hammer, Vikander and Debicki all look fantastic, while Ritchie ensures there's enough genre iconography - gadgets, split screens, accented villains - to remind us we are in a high stakes game of international espionage, rather than just a throwback fashion shoot. The result is a frivolous East meets West caper that often seems so disinterested in actually saving the world that it may infuriate audiences hoping for an authentic Cold War thriller. While nothing ever feels like it exists in any incarnation of reality, past or present, Ritchie clearly knows exactly what he is doing, and those willing to go along for the ride will be handsomely rewarded.
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