For better or worse, director Guy Ritchie’s films are style over substance, and that can sometimes make for a nice, light approach (Snatch) or it plays like it’s trying too hard to be cool (Sherlock Holmes). His latest feature, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., fits Ritchie like a perfectly tailored suit as he struts about in haute couture 1960s Europe with a bit of nonsensical spy flair that may be empty-headed and listless from a plot perspective, but it flows wonderfully as dashing spectacle. Stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are delightful together and separately as the movie coasts on their charm, sight gags, and an overabundance of suave.
Set in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War, gentleman CIA spy Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is forced to team up with taciturn KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) to work with East German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose father has been kidnapped by the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) to work on a nuclear bomb. Illya poses as Gaby’s fiancée in the hopes that her Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) can arrange an introduction, and Solo floats around trying to charm Victoria, so that they can get the intel they need and rescue Gaby’s father.
The convoluted plot is a drag on a film that is at its best when it’s being light and airy. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has loads of fun being frivolous, and the plot machinations are a chore because while a good spy film requires cleverness and wit, Ritchie is far more comfortable with what’s silly, and in the case of this movie, there’s nothing wrong with being the cinematic equivalent to a mouthful of Cool Whip. The movie adores its surplus of style, and it wraps us up in the chic trappings of the era.
Ritchie and his team have put together a nice counterbalance to the modern spy flick. His candy-coated pastiche is a far cry from the seriousness of the Bourne movies, and the early 1960s gadgets are endearingly clunky and old-fashioned, much removed from the touch-screen car windows of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. And unlike Bond, every scowl, specifically from the endearing Armie Hammer, is played for laughs instead of drama. Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a borderline cartoon complete with silly antics in the background and chest puffing from its handsome lead actors.
The sharpest the film gets is in its cutting portrayal of American and Russian stereotypes and making sure neither one is too shiny or repulsive. Cavill is debonair to the nth degree, but it’s the character’s criminal side that makes him alluring. He’s a do-gooder because his alternative is a prison sentence for being a con man and art thief. While Cavill was fine as Superman, this role makes far greater use of his charisma and savoir-faire.
As for Hammer, his sweet disposition provides a nice counterbalance to the hard-edged Illya, and provides an underlying gentleness. Russians in spy stories are usually the bad guys, and Hammer perfectly balances the character’s aggression with a surprising bit of earnestness. He may be uncompromising, but U.N.C.L.E. paints that characteristic in a positive light next to the deceptive Napoleon.
When they’re finally together on screen, they make a delightful pair even if they’re in an old mold of mismatched personalities. Their charm overpowers everything and everyone else on screen (Vikander, sadly, gets lost in the shuffle), and I could watch an entire film of Napoleon and Illya arguing about fashion. It’s such a wonderful balance of hyper-masculine and effete, and the scene where they bicker about how Gaby should dress to make a convincing cover is The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in a nutshell—self-aware but also passionate about style and trying to turn it into substance.
This obsession with style is why The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Guy Ritchie are a perfect match, far better than his two attempts to make Sherlock Holmes “modern”. Ritchie loves a good bromance, but he also likes the finer things in life, and Man from U.N.C.L.E. happily provides a peppy and preppy world and characters. It may be a shallow, pretty picture, but Ritchie has excelled in whipping it into a guilt-free confection.