2015 is shaping up to be the year of the spy film. Earlier in the year, Mathew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service came out of nowhere as a huge surprise both critically and financially, with a sequel already in the works. Besides that, Melissa McCarthy’s spoof movie Spy as well as the latest installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, have kept the genre ever present in our minds. We’ve even got the next James Bond movie, Spectre, coming out this fall to great expectation. But for all those eagerly anticipating the return of 007, Guy Ritchie’s latest film, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. serves as a great reminder of how the spy genre came into its own.
Based on the 1960s television series of the same name, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. takes place during the cold war and features Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), a suave and womanizing ex-professional robber turned CIA agent tasked with securing a German asset, the daughter of a Nazi scientist named Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander). Also after Teller, is KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), a stoic and though-as-nails Russian operative who was raised as a soldier. The two opposing agents initially face-off in a confrontation that ends with Solo escaping with Teller, only to later be told by their respective agencies that they are to join forces in order to neutralize a potential threat to both nations. With Teller’s help, Napoleon and Illya will have to enter a world populated with ex-Nazi sociopaths and rich megalomaniacs in order to stop an evil couple, Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki and Luca Calvani), from getting their hands on a nuclear weapon.
The main plot here really isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. It’s the kind of story you see in pretty much any other James Bond film: Evil genius wants to blow up world, and our hero(es) must stop them. The whole odd couple partnership between two enemies who slowly start to respect one another is also something that has been done time and time again. Yet, in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., these tired tropes manage to come off as new and refreshing, and much of that has to do with the presence of director/writer Guy Ritchie. The script’s foundation may be a traditional spy plot, but the witty dialogue is what keeps it engaging. Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wingram (the pair also worked together on Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes films) made sure that each character got their moment and were completely developed and distinctive. Even a relatively minor character like Teller’s uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) gets a great scene in which we learn about his past as an ex-Nazi who specialised in torture. This movie is what an ideal TV series pilot should be like, giving you an immediate feel for the world and characters while also making you anticipate their further adventures.
Ritchie has an exceptional eye for style, and it’s that style that also sets this apart from so many other spy flicks. It’s clear that Ritchie wanted to make every single scene his own and inject a large amount of flair into them. For example, every time Kuryakin gets angry, the camera pans into his face and a musical riff plays as the audience wonders whether he will act on his aggression or hold it in for the good of the mission. It’s a gimmick that’s both hilarious, and gives you a sense of Kuryakin as a character without him needing to speak a word, and that’s how you know you’re watching a film made by a great director. Ritchie loves to play around with camera angles, letting the camera move around at a rapid and steady pace with very few edits making the various vehicular chase scenes that much more entertaining to watch. The soundtrack is also incredibly arranged, adding to all the tones each individual scene requires, be it comedic, thrilling or bombastic. You can clearly tell that this movie was made by the same director responsible for the last two Sherlock Holmes adaptations as it has a lot of the same ticks and beats, but Ritchie seems to have recognised what did and didn’t work with that series, and applied his lessons to U.N.C.L.E. in order to create the absolute best version of what he wanted to do with the Robert Downey Jr led films.
Armie Hammer has had it pretty rough of late. Though he exploded onto the scene with his performance as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, his subsequent roles (Lone Ranger, Mirror, Mirror) have been poorly chosen to say the least. However. here, Hammer plays the cold Russian with great delight and pulls off the Russian accent flawlessly (although I’m not Russian so I can’t exactly speak to its complete authenticity). Henry Cavill has all the charm and bravado of classic Hollywood actors, easily able to seduce an attractive woman and land amusing one-liners without breaking a sweat. Cavill and Hammer have a chemistry together that is absolutely essential for a movie of this type. In the middle of the film, there is a break-in scene in which Solo and Kuryakin constantly one-up each other while getting through a facility’s security and it’s there where you see how both actors are able to play off each other to great effect. Each character thinks they’re better than they truly are, and discovers that they are more effective as a team. Alicia Vikander (who is having quite the year with this, Ex Machina and Seventh Son) aptly performs her role as femme fatale, yet also shows a certain agency and feistiness that sets her apart from the traditional spy movie vixen. The romantic tension between her and Hammer’s character is very fun to watch, especially considering that it’s a dynamic between a giant brute and small innocent looking girl wherein the small innocent girl isn’t all that innocent, and holds all the power over the giant brute without him even knowing.
If you are in any way a fan of spy flicks, then The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an absolute must see. Guy Ritchie’s visionary directing, the razor sharp script as well as the undeniable chemistry between the three leads all come together to turn what could have easily been a by-the-numbers movie into something truly special. It has comedy, romance, thrills and originality while also paying proper homage to the genre it clearly has great admiration for. It’s good to see that this summer had one last big surprise to grace us with, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a great way to close off this movie season. I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing this one turn into a franchise, as long as everyone involved returns for future installments.
Final Grade: 9/10