Review: 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.' Guy Ritchie's reworking of the 60's television show is a winning, action-packed summer blockbuster.
NPR logo A Funny And Sexy Adaptation Of 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'

Review

Movie Reviews

A Funny And Sexy Adaptation Of 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'

Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander,) Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer,) and Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) in a scene from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Daniel Smith/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

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Daniel Smith/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander,) Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer,) and Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) in a scene from The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Daniel Smith/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a period adventure film. It has periods of international intrigue and periods of sexy comedy. Basically, it has a lot of periods. Even in this benighted age of wantonly colon-ized movie titles, U.N.C.L.E. stands out as the most punctuated picture of the year.

Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the young bucks who played Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin — American and Russian spies paired up to prevent Armageddon — on TV's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. circa 1964-68, are octogenarians now. But both actors are still kicking, and the pop culture of the 1960s is strong: This summer alone has brought us set-in-the-present cinematic iterations of the Marvel Avengers (est. 1963), Mission: Impossible (1966), and The Fantastic Four (1961). In November, James Bond will return in SPECTRE, carrying on a franchise from 1962, when the current President of the United States was in diapers. It's enough to make anyone starved for fresh ideas cry "Uncle!"

Or U.N.C.L.E. What distinguishes Guy Ritchie's fizzy, dizzy new big-screen gloss on the ancient spy show is that it's actually set in 1963. It luxuriates in the clothes and cars and music of the era, updating only the sexual politics. (Phew.) Ritchie blends the opulence of the early Bond pictures with the jazzy tempo of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 11 — itself a 21st century update of 1960s artifact. The result is a triumph of cinematography, production design, costuming, music supervision/scoring, and editing.

What substance it has could be dissolved in a shot glass. But so what? Neither as thrilling as Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation nor as funny as Spy, U.N.C.L.E. is still the most escapist of the three, in the sense that it feels like a boozy getaway to the Rome of La Dolce Vita. Surely that's good enough for August.

Opening with a stylized title sequence of Cold War headlines and archival footage set to Roberta Flack's "Compared to What" (a protest song not recorded until the end of the sixties, but hey, Mad Men used anachronistic tunes, too) U.N.C.L.E. takes us back to the start of the pop-culture spy craze, when we imagined the job consisted mostly of five-star travel and sex with beautiful people you would likely have to kill in the morning.

The two most beautiful people in it are male leads Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. They're the new Solo and Kuryakin, respectively, but best known for playing Superman and The Lone Ranger, exports from the 1930s. With their angular features and single-digit bodyfat percentages, neither man looks like he could've existed in the 30s or the 60s. Hammer's hammer-like frame is much discussed; amusingly, no one in the movie seems to notice that Cavill also has the physique of a Greek statue, even when he doffs his bespoke three-piece suits for a bathrobe.

They're both reasonably adept at light comedy — Cavill even does that old trick where you whisk the tablecloth away without upsetting the dishes and glassware on top of it — and their buddy-buddy chemistry is passable, if not exactly Butch-and-Sundance grade.

The movie opens with the American Agent Solo — granite-chinned, ocean-eyed Cavill — on a mission to smuggle the winsome auto mechanic Gaby Teller out of East Berlin. The C.I.A. wants her because they believe she can help locate her missing father, an ex-Nazi scientist who'd been working for the U.S. (Gaby is played by Alicia Vikander, who will appear in at least five other movies in the next 12 months.) Relentless KGB man Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer) pursues the duo. After a better-than-average chase in those adorable little 60's cars carved from the finest East German plywood, Solo and Gaby escape, but soon Solo's superior (Jared Harris, another Brit chewing on his Yankee accent a little too hard) assigns him to work with Kuryakin to prevent a mysterious cabal from acquiring a nuclear warhead. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki plays Victoria Vinciguerra, the leader of that sinister outfit. Her husband is the dim trophy spouse.

So that's our principal cast: Two Brits playing Americans, an American playing a Russian, a Swede playing a German, an Australian playing an Italian. Hugh Grant plays an Englishman, which is surely for the best. The movie could use more of him, but he's clearly having fun in his modest role as Alexander Waverly, the genial British intelligence man who eventually becomes Solo and Kuryakin's boss.

Ritchie, who earned his stripes with the wry English crime pictures Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch before moving on to blockbusters, has always had a ritalin-addled style. His films stay just on the precipice of being indecipherable. One device he uses a few times too many in this one is to show us a brief scene with a key piece of dialogue omitted from the soundtrack, then to reprise it a short while later with the critical line restored. Ritchie's overreliance on this trick becomes grating — it's like he's protesting that no, he really has thought this convoluted yarn he's spinning through, and it all makes sense, dammit. But he doesn't trust us to follow along. Or even just to intuit that when a spy movie shows us two people bumping into one another, it's clearly for the purpose of handing off an envelope or picking someone's pocket.

The good stuff is really good, though. There's a fun scene in a high-end Roman boutique when Solo and Kuryakin argue over what wardrobe would best sell Gaby's cover as the wife of a visiting architect. While they bicker, she picks out a mod ensemble for herself. Later, Gaby's dogged attempt to seduce Kuryakin in her hotel room while dancing to Solomon Burke's "Cry to Me" inverts the usual Bond scenario by making her the aggressor. Intentionally or not, the scene even works as a rejoinder to Dirty Dancing, which was set in the same year and used the same song to announce Jennifer Grey's deflowering by the thoroughly experienced Patrick Swayze.

Ritchie's action sequences have comic interludes, too, Finding temporary refuge while he and Kuryakin are being shot at by pursuing henchmen, Solo helps himself to an unattended sack lunch while leaving his partner to fend for himself. Ritchie continues the chase in one tiny upper corner of the frame while in the foreground, Cavill enjoys a sandwich and some wine. Funny stuff. When the obligatory castle-storming climax arrives, Ritchie fast-forwards through it, depicting the black-turtleneck commando raid in a dialogue-free, split-screen montage scored by war drums. He knows we've seen this part 1,001 times already; credit him at least with trying to put a new frame around it. After this, there's still a dune-buggy chase and a hand-to-hand showdown in the rain, to appease purists. Still, U.N.C.L.E. is less violent than many PG-13 rated movies, keeping most of its viciousness offscreen.

That's no small thing, given that it contains what's probably the funniest torture scene since the one in Brazil 30 years ago. In it, a bad man played by Sylvester Grothan actor whose face evinces soul-deep corruption so persuasively he's been cast as Joseph Goebbels twice — promises Solo he's going to fill a photo album with snapshots of the spy's painful dissection. "Kodachrome," he hisses. "The colors are so real you can almost taste them."

Real? Fuggedaboudit. But color and taste this movie's got.