Summer should be filled with breezy action films like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. With the void left while waiting for the new James Bond film, Spectre, spoofs like Spy and reincarnated homages like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are emerging to keep the audiences entertained with espionage and gadgets galore.
Based on the massively popular television series that ran fifty years ago, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feels like a reboot that few people were clamoring for. The original fans are still loyal, but given the age of the show and the complete vacuum of films and spinoffs from the original show, there was little buzz around the film adaptation. Even with the well-known director, Guy Ritchie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is facing an uphill battle.
The plot functions as an origins story of the U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) organization and takes place in the early 1960s. It all starts with Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), the suave spy who slipped into East Germany to recruit Gaby (Alicia Vikander) for his next mission. Gaby’s father has been kidnapped to work on an atomic warhead and Solo needs her help to lead them to it. Just as they are making their way to the border and the comfort of the west side of the Berlin wall Solo notices that they are being followed. What transpires is a car chase that is anything but typical. Rather than racing at great speeds across a wide open city, both cars participate in the case by trying to outsmart one another. One car with Solo and Gaby and the other with KGB, bob and weave through traffic and narrow lanes, but when the cars are eventually abandoned it is clear that the smarter man will win.
After the dust from the chase has settled Solo’s assignment is clarified and it surfaces that he must now cooperate with the KGB agent, Illya (Armie Hammer). Both organizations want to find the warhead and both need Gaby so both men need to get along for the rest of the film.
The best parts of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are watching Solo and Illya get along while grinding their teeth, which just results in them looking like birds doing an intricate mating dance, or trying to show off knowledge of women’s fashion. The film feels the most invested when watching these two go head to head. Toeing the line between bromance and frenemies, Solo and Illya despise one another on a cultural level—this is the height of the cold war, after all—but grow to honestly respect and like one another as colleagues. They are each good at what they do and want to learn from an equal they respect.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also has quite a lot going on in the background of several scenes. Ritchie uses the entire frame in each scene which is a fun diversion. The foreground and the background often have contrasting but related activity flashing on screen. The fun distracts your attention away to opposite corners on the screen and begs for multiple viewings.
Despite the delightful tête-à-têtes between Solo and Illya and the richness of the action throughout each frame, the film never quite knows what to do with Gaby. She is an East German car mechanic who can hold her own in a high speed chase, yet under the watchful eye of Solo and Illya she suddenly becomes both a damsel and a pawn. She lets the men tell her what to do and even choose her clothes. Throughout the film I could never quite figure out her character as she was written inconsistently.
Even with this weakness The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was far more fun than I thought it could be. The audience needs no prior knowledge of the original television show to enjoy Ritchie’s snippy and engaging spy flick. The story balances exposition, action, and humor so well and so effortlessly it makes me question why so many films struggle to find that balance. Granted, I may not remember seeing The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at the end of the year because it is not bringing anything especially inventive to the screen, but I sure did enjoy watching it.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Film Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: August 14, 2015
Distributor: Warner Brothers