If Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films taught us anything, it's that Guy Ritchie isn't going to let the nature of his source material stop him from making a Guy Ritchie movie. More often than not, his films are flashy, funny, frivolous affairs that emphasize knotty plotting, style over substance, witty banter and playful performances. He does the same thing with his big-screen adaptation of the '60s television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but the departures from the source material are less blatantly offensive in this case. The show's hip, winking style was already a great deal closer to Ritchie's preferred brand of filmmaking than Arthur Conan Doyle's suspenseful mysteries were, so the disconnect is neither as blatant nor as troublesome this time around. This is a fun, lightweight adaptation of a fun, lightweight series – a cool summer breeze of a movie.
Our tale begins on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall circa 1963. CIA Agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, Man of Steel) is attempting to help rescue Gaby Teller (the consistently impressive Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina), the daughter of a controversial German scientist. Solo's efforts are greatly hindered by KGB Agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, The Lone Ranger), who is tasked with preventing the girl from making it across the wall. The two fight ferociously, but Solo ultimately prevails and helps Gaby reach the other side. Then, both agents receive a piece of bad news: an international crisis involving a quickly-developed nuclear weapon will require both of them to work together on a secret mission.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. offers a great deal of international flavor over the course of its fast-paced two hours, hopping across all sorts of exotic European locations and inviting us to soak in the chic clothes, cars, buildings, haircuts and double entendres it has to offer. This flick always looks like a million bucks, and one of the most amusing running gags is that the characters frequently concern themselves with maintaining appearances – Solo, Kuryakin and Teller pay as much attention to each other's belts, rings, bowties and dresses as they do to each other's weapons, surveillance bugs and ulterior motives.
At a glance, the film's casting looks ridiculously wonky: Ritchie has two Brits (Cavill and Jared Harris, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows) playing Americans, an American (Hammer) playing a Russian and a Swede (Vikander) playing a German – but it all works out, and everyone seems just about right for the part they've been given. Cavill, Vikander and Hammer all bring a different energy to the table – unflappable confidence, intelligent unpredictability and sulky nobility, respectively – and it's fun to witness the chemistry they generate together. Cavill in particular – who was so curiously dull in his first outing as Clark Kent/Superman - demonstrates why he deserves to be a movie star: his performance lands at precisely the right halfway point between serious-minded sincerity and campy archness.
Ritchie's direction is typically hyperactive - sometimes, anyway. He's fond of employing The Thomas Crown Affair-esque split screen effects during his action scenes, and pumps up a host of high-octane moments with a diverse Daniel Pemberton score (which often suggests that we're watching a spaghetti western by way of Mad Men), quick cuts and lots of explosions, but this is generally a more restrained effort than most of Ritchie's work. He lets the dialogue scenes run on and on, which isn't really a bad thing if you enjoy the charmingly silly banter as much as I did. Ritchie's affection for the film's production design also seems to prevent him from going into hyperdrive, as he lets shots linger longer than we expect in order to less us soak in the elegant, magazine-ready images he's cooked up.
This a movie of modest pleasures, but there's an abundance of them. Hugh Grant (About a Boy) slipping into the "charming character actor" phase of his career as the British government official eventually tasked with overseeing Solo and Kuryakin's mission. Vikander turning in an impromptu dance scene that rivals the spontaneous pleasure of Oscar Isaac's disco party in Ex Machina. Hammer and Cavill bickering over which fashion accessory Vikander should wear. The little biographical details offered up during the film's stylish end credits sequence. The way Cavill's line readings occasionally make him sound exactly like 30 Rock's Dr. Leo Spacemen. The way a nasty torture scene is successfully turned into a showcase for dry humor. The hilariously melodramatic music that pops up every time Solo's temper starts to flare. The way Elizabeth Debecki (The Great Gatsby) turns in the summer's most casually understated villain. There's no thematic depth or dramatic substance here, but there's nothing wrong with making room in your cinematic diet for cocktails and cupcakes.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Year: 2015