Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, & Alica Vikander
Review by Kieran Freemantle
2015 is the year of the spy film with the likes of Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spooks: The Greater Good, Spy and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation all being released and a new entry in the Bond series (Spectre) coming out later this year. In the meantime Guy Ritchie and Warner Brothers are offering the long-awaited adaptation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with the hopes of starting another film franchise.
The year is 1963 and the Cold War is at its height with the United States and Soviet Union facing off against each other. In East Berlin the CIA's top agent, the suave Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), faces off against the KGB's best, the incredibly strong Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) when Solo helps a young woman, Gabby Teller (Alica Vikander), defect to the West. But irony happens when their superiors in the respective agencies tell them they have to work to together to stop a group of ex-Nazis from making a nuclear bomb and need Gabby to get them access to the group.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has been in development hell since the 1990s, with directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh and a host of actors being attached to the project before Guy Ritchie was giving the directing duties. He reunites with his Sherlock Holmes producer Lionel Wigram and on the surface they seem like a good fit due to the Sherlock Holmes series' historical setting and the love-hate chemistry between Robert Downey Jr's Sherlock and Jude Law's Watson. They wanted to recreate that magic with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and they have an easy setting for this, both men have opposing ideologies and world outlooks; Solo is a roguish agent who enjoys the finer things of life, looks immaculate in expensive suits and is a ruthless womaniser. Kuryakin is a by-the-books type with simpler tastes, a fierce temper and has the psychical and mental determination of a terminator. Both are equally effective but for different reasons and both men are gorillas beating their chests to show their prowess, skills and spy tools. They distrust each other to the point of planting bugs on the other but their friendship and mutual respect grows.
Cavill and Hammer are fine in the lead roles but they are not a match to what Downey Jr and Law had in the Sherlock Holmes series. The Sherlock Holmes pair had a great back-and-forth, Holmes being an uncontrollable eccentric and Watson is the straight man who is not willing to put up with Holmes' behaviour. Cavill and Hammer do have some witty jabs against each other but both are straight-laced characters and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has a more serious tone than you would expect. Alicia Vikander shows off her lighter side after having very heavy roles in Testament of Youth and Ex Machina; she is a lot of fun having to be the woman who has to break Solo and Kuryakin up when they bricker and there’s an enjoyable moment when she dances and attempts to loosen Kuryakin. There are some physical moments in her performance that rise a chuckle, and a subtlety in her performance. Vikander’s appearance also takes away any homoerotism that is usually a recurring theme in Ritchie's films.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was made on a budget of $75 Million which is fairly low for a summer action film. As a result the film is not as action-packed as one would expect or hope. Most of the action appears at the beginning and the end of the film with the middle sagging. There is a fun car chase on the streets of Berlin with the camera zooming in and out during the sequence and Ritchie showing off his proficiency for staging an action sequence. Another car chase on an Italian island was a highlight, repeating the same techniques, as Solo and Kuryakin are chasing the same target from different directions. The boat chase at night is also a moment of enjoyment, but the shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat are fairly rudimentary affairs and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Kingsman: The Secret Service easily surpass The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Cavill was famously considered to play James Bond in Casino Royale but lost out to Daniel Craig. His performance here felt like it was an audition tape for the role after Craig is finished as Bond. He is decent enough in the role as he beds ladies and wears his suits and there some impressive moments as the camera focuses on his face and emotion wears on him, with Daniel Pemberton's music amplifying the scene: one of them is an effective torture sequence that felt like Ritchie was repeating a similar shot in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Plus he is allowed to say some witty quiffs. But there are better candidates to be MI6's best (i.e. Michael Fassbender).
Back in 2013 William Hill made Guy Ritchie the favourite to direct the 24th Bond film when Sam Mendes originally said he would not return. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was also his showcase in what he could do if given the reins of James Bond. With John Mathieson's cinematography and the Art Department's eye of period detail, Ritchie makes a very flashy, stylish film that oozes 60s cool, using vintage cars and clothing, visiting a high society function and Solo showing off his skills; it felt very much like the Sean Connery Bond films. The villains even have their own private island which is basically a Bond lair and a military force has to invade. Composer Daniel Pemberton also adds to the 60s feel because of his jazzy style score and uses some songs from the era. Yet Ritchie's distinctive style is present, such as his use of flashbacks to reveal an action as some sort of ploy.
The Man of U.N.C.L.E. is a distinctly average film and with Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation also in cinemas your money is best spent seeing the Tom Cruise vehicle. This film is a second tier entry in comparison to this year's spy films, summer blockbusters and in the filmography of Guy Ritchie.