Based off of the ’60s TV show of the same name, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” sees the underrated talents of Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer cultivated beneath the wing of delightfully entertaining action auteur Guy Ritchie. While the film’s hackneyed plot is more or less swept under the rug to make room for a host of spy genre tropes, somehow the talent both behind and in front of the camera still manages to dazzle.
In what is technically a prequel to the aforementioned series, Henry Cavill is Napoleon Solo, a debonair ex-thief working for the CIA during the Cold War. After a close call retrieving Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a dangerous nuclear weapons expert, from behind the Berlin Wall, Solo is forced to team up with Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), a straight-buttoned KGB operative, to track down Gaby’s father and stop a criminal organization headed by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) from mass producing nuclear weapons. The resulting adventure is one of political intrigue, shocking betrayal and undeniable style. The two spies have no choice but to quickly adapt to working as a team as they race to — in short — save the world.
At the core of the film’s greatest assets is Ritchie’s easily recognizable visual style. His fairly eccentric approach to action sequences — highlighted by rapidly-shifting split screens and intensely fast pacing — perfectly compliments the flashiness of the ’60s backdrop. The “Sherlock Holmes” director is at home toying with vintage pistols, exploring chic European locales and revisiting the best of the decade’s formal wear, and it is ultimately this dedication to the glossy aesthetics of the period that allows “U.N.C.L.E.” to distinguish itself from recent spy ventures.
The crown jewel of Ritchie’s groovy ’60s kingdom is undoubtedly the film’s addicting, soulful score, which is superbly integrated into the action. The foot-tapping jazz does more than support the mood; it exposes subtle humor and pumps vigorous energy into an at times obnoxiously typical film.
While very well-defined as a period piece, the precise genre Ritchie intends to evoke is difficult to pin down, though this is arguably to the film’s benefit, allowing it to proceed unrestricted by the tone limitations of a single category. “U.N.C.L.E” refuses to settle on a guiding sub-genre; there are the self-mocking elements of a spy parody, the somber realism of a contemporary secret agent outing and, most prevalently, the fantastical playfulness of a Cold War thriller. The tone glides comfortably along the border between campy and classy, reaping the benefits of the unpredictability established by unorthodox behavior.
This unconventional strategy, however, is far from foolproof. It’s easy to imagine Ritchie, who also penned the screenplay, at a buffet of action cliches; he overloads his plate with heists, car chases, political rivalries, high-society parties, one-night stands, nifty gadgets and more. The result is a laundry list of entertaining but insubstantial content that Ritchie feels compelled to prioritize above the plotline, as it merely exists in service of his to-do-list. The potential for a truly memorable story is totally lost, and what could have been a instant action classic is just too usual to leave a lasting impression.
Luckily, Cavill and Hammer are able to pick up the slack where the writing falls short. The screenplay may lack any real weight, but it’s practically bursting at the seams with refreshingly clever one-liners, and the duo proves more than capable of dropping punchlines with first-rate timing. Whether they’re bickering over men’s fashion, mocking the shortcomings of each other’s gadgets or even just silently judging the ridiculousness of their situation, Cavill and Hammer never let a comedic opportunity slip past unexploited. The exaggerated nature of their characters hardly calls for any genuine emotional gravitas, so the actors are free to completely inflate Solo and Kuryakin’s archetypal personalities — Cavill the smooth-talking womanizer, and Hammer the stiff and temperamental career agent.
Still, it’s chemistry that propels films with dual protagonists, and while the two actors are undeniably charismatic individually and are noticeably sensitive to each other’s comedic strengths, many of their more serious interactions are stale. It’s difficult to determine if the fault lies with Cavill and/or Hammer or with weakly-written scenes, but thankfully, in scenes of surprising awkwardness, easily quotable wisecracks quickly relieve tension and releases the two talented actors back into the film’s world of chaotic escapades.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E” may not be the next “Mission Impossible” by any accounts, but the unforgettable humor and aesthetically realized action are irresistible virtues that serve the film well. The melting pot of spy cliches is far from groundbreaking, but this secret agent adventure carries just enough spark to allow it to emerge from its shaky foundation.
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