It seems the age of cold-war era spy flicks is over – increasingly, we’re focusing on modern warfare and cyber technology terrorism (see: Skyfall, Kingsmen: The Secret Service) and with little wonder. With our world run by technology, we’re increasingly aware on how vulnerable we are, both on the net and in real life, and tapping into this fear makes an instant connection with the audience. So when a cold-war retro spy film like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. shows up on our screens, it’s like reliving the time you had a weekend marathon watching the Sean Connery Bond films on your grandparents’ grainy VHS tapes – transporting you into romanticised memories of a period of terror, espionage and politics frozen in time.
An adaptation of a popular 60s television show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. presents Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) as CIA agent Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer (Lone Ranger, The Social Network) as KGB agent Illya Kuryakin, two sides of the Cold War coin forced to work together to infiltrate an organisation rumoured to be making nuclear warheads. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) joins as Gaby, a car mechanic living in East Germany who is wanted by both the CIA and KGB because of her estranged familial ties within the nuclear energy industry.
U.N.C.L.E. is a flick full of cultural references, high 1960s fashion, lavish affairs and down-and-dirty espionage. Director Guy Ritchie must have gone full James Bond in the editing room – there are violent cut scenes, split screens and stylised special effects galore. His love of playing to genre, style and pop culture references is evident within this film. With the action, characters, visual effects and soundtrack, this definitely feels like a spy film and fans will love it for that, despite any of the shortcomings they may see within the story.
Like Robert Vaughn’s TV portrayal, Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is a smooth-talking, witty, easy-going criminal-turned-CIA-agent and womaniser. Illya Kuryakin is a tight-lipped and intense Russian ubermensch who just may have a softer side if you dig a little deeper. Vikander as Gaby, the only character not in the original series, does well to hold her own amongst the chaos. With a sound Russian accent, the American Hammer does well in his role – a refreshing change since his last acting effort, The Lone Ranger. This movie is studded with young Hollywood talent, save for of course, Hugh Grant, who is considered old Hollywood now.
Many fans of FX’s Archer, an animated series about a dysfunctional group of American spies loosely set in the early 1960s, will undoubtedly be drawn to U.N.C.L.E. as a unofficial live-action adaptation, but the film employs a refreshingly lighter, sillier humour. In the way that Solo doesn’t take anything too seriously, neither does this film; a similar nonchalant humour exhibited by Downey Jr. in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films.
As far as story goes, it’s no James Bond. The story is straightforward and easy to understand. Spy films are known for their complicated plots, betrayals, sex appeal and danger, and with U.N.C.L.E.’s story not delivering on many of those key requirements, I can see how other critics believe a great spy flick was let down by its story. Truly, U.N.C.L.E. is espionage in its simplest. Despite this, the films feels considerably balanced despite that it wasn’t really needed nor wanted, especially with Kingsmen: The Secret Service a box office hit earlier in the year.
Undoubtedly, it’s marketed as many spy films are – sexy, sophisticated and action-packed, and the film delivers on the last two, but is inherently lacking in the ‘sexy’ department – namely, there is very little sex, or for whatever sex there is, it’s thrown in without a second thought and not at all in the name of espionage. This is fine if keeping with the rating of ‘M’ – not recommended for children under 15 without a guardian – was the name of the game, but with considerably violent scenes, this isn’t so. In the end, despite everyone being hella sexy, it’s the lack of sex appeal within the story that really limits this film.
U.N.C.L.E. runs for one hour and fifty-five minutes. It’s a film I’d recommend for the easy-going spy film lover, and someone who, like the film, doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Despite the smaller, niggling details, I enjoyed so much the silliness of this film and I wouldn’t be sad to see a sequel in the works.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is in cinemas now.