The films of Guy Ritchie succeed best when they blend comedic elements with a strong circuitous narrative set on the fringes of society. Usually, that fringe is some underground criminal element, but with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Ritchie puts his inimitable aesthetic to work on the period spy thriller. Though the plot can feel fairly derivative at times, the stars ably carry the film forward and offer some surprisingly funny moments amid the tradecraft and action set pieces.
Based on an American TV show from the 1960s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. follows a pair of spies: the American Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and the Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Set during the height of the Cold War, the two superspies must team up to investigate the kidnapping of a missing nuclear scientist who just might be building a hydrogen bomb for escaped Nazis. The scientist is the father of Gaby, an East German mechanic played expertly by Alicia Vikander. Both male leads do a fantastic job of developing a voice for their character; Cavill’s Solo is smarmy, cocksure, and womanizing while Hammer’s Kuryakin struggles to bottle up his anger and frustration at the events transpiring around him. Even smaller parts are wonderfully performed, especially in the case of Hugh Grant.
As noted earlier, the plot is a little derivative, reminding us of things like The Sum of All Fears, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and basically every other time a third party attempts to use a nuclear warhead to spark a fight between America and Russia. Fortunately, Ritchie and the talent he has in front of the camera infuse a great deal of charm and humor into the whole proceedings. There are bizarrely funny cat-and-mouse scenes between Solo and Kuryakin throughout their relationship, for example, that could be completely rote and forgettable without the humor element. In particular, a torture scene late in the second act flirts with some horribly dark material, but through some genius comedic timing and a particular plot point, Richie is able to make this sequence hilarious instead of uncomfortable.
2015 is shaping up to be the year of the spy film, with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. joining Mission: Impossible 5 in the clubhouse with Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and Spectre teeing off later this fall. Judging from the reviews and the early box office returns, it looks like U.N.C.L.E. is going to be lost in the shuffle, and that’s a real shame. This film has a quirky, unique take on the spy thriller (most likely due to Ritchie’s direction) and I guarantee it will end up being the funniest of these four films. Hammer and Cavill don’t have the A-list status of Tom Hanks or Daniel Craig, but they portray some fleshed out, entertaining characters. And, again, Alicia Vikander absolutely dazzles. This film will surprise you with its tongue-in-cheek tone and some off-the-wall humor and editing techniques. It is a better film than it is getting credit for, and is certainly a great deal of fun.