Review by C.J. Bunce
It’s almost a shame this weekend’s big screen release The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a retelling of the 1960s television series. It’s an adaptation in that it takes the framework of the show—an American and a Russian working together as Cold War era spies—yet director Guy Ritchie makes this work stand completely by itself. The fact that it’s based on a classic series may turn away viewers who may be tired of other remakes of 1960s shows like Get Smart and The Avengers (both of which were good standalone films). But that would be a great loss, as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is not only as stylish as advertised in our favorite trailer of the year, it’s a classy and smart story and a superb re-creation of the early 1960s.
It’s no surprise that this film relishes its Bond influences–Henry Cavill’s character Napoleon Solo was created by Ian Fleming, the same Ian Fleming that created Bond. Yet the movie is fresh and new. The story and Cavill’s performance evoke Matt Bomer’s role of stylish and cocky ex-art thief-turned government man on TV’s White Collar. In fact Cavill is a dead ringer for Bomer. Likely it’s just a coincidence but if you loved White Collar you’ll love this film. And any doubts you may have as to Cavill’s acting because of the poorly written part he was stuck with in Man of Steel will be wiped away with his confident and suave Solo. Even better is Armie Hammer’s performance as Illya Kuryakin. Any doubts you may have as to Hammer’s acting from his lead role in The Lone Ranger will also be wiped away. Hammer’s performance as a KGB agent in need of some anger management is nuanced and layered. The idea of putting some Ennio Morricone musical queues behind Hammer and adding a Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry twitch are simply inspired. This is a great team and a film that sets itself up for an exciting sequel.
As commanding a presence as Cavill and Hammer have, they are almost upstaged by the equally important roles played by Alicia Vikander as the German daughter of a rocket scientist and Elizabeth Debicki as the ultimate Bond villain. The villainy in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is surprisingly as powerful, seething, and fun as any 1960s Bond film. All of this is a credit to Ritchie’s bankable directorial and writing prowess. A fan of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Ritchie knows how to get the best out of partnerships here, just as he did with his Sherlock Holmes movie series.
Look for a small but important role by Hugh Grant as British spymaster Waverly. Grant finally has a part that does not rely on that typical Hugh Grant funny guy. Sherlock Holmes’ Jared Harris turns in an over-the-top but appropriate to the film performance as Solo’s handler.
Absolutely brilliant is the combination of 1960s era songs, themes, costume design, set design, and cinematography. Years from now viewers will be flipping through cable channels and come across this film and believe it is an actual movie from the 1960s. The scene with Hammer riding a motorcycle cross-country evoking Steve McQueen in The Great Escape is like a work of retro art. If you loved the British television series Zen, you’ll no doubt fall for Debicki’s estate and boat. Cavill’s Solo may not be Rufus Sewell’s Aurelio Zen, but he’s nearly as good here and the closest thing we’ve seen to Zen in years.
Ritchie makes several choices that either conjure up imagery from 1960s film classics or take the film in bold directions. Instead of relying on loud and flashy action sequences typical of current Hollywood action movies, two key action sequences are condensed into multiple panel wipes in a collage of fun and stylized, visual spectacle. It’s the same use of film design that jazzed up Steve McQueen’s Bullitt. The film also builds steadily so the ending has a nice payoff as you could otherwise only find in a 1960s spy movie.
We hope to hear more from composer Daniel Pemberton. His music is powerful and rich sounds, cuts, queues, and clever edits slide the film along with a cool vibe.
Spy movie and 1960s film fans shouldn’t miss this one. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is in theaters everywhere now.