Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Jared Harris and Hugh Grant
Running time: 116 minutes
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Year of release: 2015
The original Man from UNCLE earned its stripes by being slightly more breezy than the James Bond films it emulated. The humor felt a little more arch, the absurdity worn more openly on its sleeve. The Roger Moore Bonds followed its lead, then outdid it in outlandish excess, but back in the Connery era, it was enough to give it an identity of its very own.
Strangely enough, this new movie version of the old show has pretty much the same light-as-a-feather tone as its predecessor. Bond, consequently, has gotten so gritty and grim in the Daniel Craig era (and trust me, I’m not complaining), that The Man from UNCLE look positively farcical in comparison. And that, too, isn’t such a bad thing. For just like in the 1960s, the spy field suddenly looks very crowded. And with the Mission: Impossible series comfortably relying on the battered-but-still-scrappy star appeal of Tom Cruise, UNCLE needs to find its own groove in order to survive.
It does so with the nostalgic cool of the era that started it all. And it couldn’t ask for a better steward than Guy Ritchie, who was born for the swinging 60s and finds the perfect groove here to get that throwback kick. It’s a good thing too, for once you puncture that veneer, UNCLE has nothing but absolute froth beyond it. It exists for one reason only: to show us unspeakably good-looking people (seriously, if you stare at Henry Cavill too long you’ll go blind) cruise through glamorous foreign locations is super-groovy clothes while effortlessly thwarting threats to the free world between glasses of scotch shared with leggy supermodels. That’s its trick: just one, but it’s really good at it… and it’s hard to believe it would work quite so well without Ritchie’s unique sensibilities behind the camera.
As I intimated, the plot itself doesn’t really matter, linking suave CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) with bull-in-a-china-shop KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to halt a plot by nebulous third parties to steal a nuclear bomb. If the film actually depended on that to hold out interest, we’d be doomed. Instead, it takes the beats of the story as an opportunity to poke dry, witty fun at the genre. And just as with the original version, the overwhelming charm of the leads goes a long way towards selling us on its slightly subversive fun. You just love watching these two bicker their way through a ripe slice of espionage cliche, deflating their fragile egos just often enough to get a good laugh, then returning to the accepted business of watching them knock down the bad guys like nine-pins.
They’re joined by sexy East German defector Gaby (Alicia Vikander), who becomes the straw that stirs the drink. Having blown our socks off with Ex Machina, the actress takes great delight in removing the steam from her leading men’s stride and helps the film laugh at itself without losing the bare-bones seriousness that lets the humor thrive. In one of those moments that make me grin like a loon, she turns on a song behind Hammer’s gumble-puss Russian, then starts to dance with absolutely no concern for whether he notices or not. It’s a small scene, but it holds such joy at its own irreverence that you can’t help but fall in love with it.
The rest of the movie works simply by repeating that feat and ensuring that it never gets old. Truth be told, the results don’t mean much if you’re looking for anything of the slightest substance, but this is August and substance has no place here. The Man from UNCLE also earns kudos for being a grown-up bit of froth at least, and adults weary of robots and superheroes should find its slight pleasures refreshing in the extreme. Movies like this didn’t used to have to hide in the dog days, but that’s not the world we live in anymore, and its presence is no less welcome in this cinematic dead point than it would be at the beginning of May. It’s enough just to remind us how cool superspies can be when they put their minds to it. It goes down as easy as the cocktails the heroes quaff like clockwork, and while you probably won’t remember it in the morning, it won’t leave any lingering bad taste. We can’t ask for more from any picture released this time of year, and indeed we’re used to seeing much, much less.