Back in the 1960s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., starring Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as his young partner Illya Kuryakin, was the coolest spy show on TV.
The 2015 The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie’s big screen revival of the sixties series, embraces the old-school spy games and style. It’s an origin story of sorts—think “When Napoleon met Illya”—with the two agents in a wary partnership, but otherwise it doesn’t bother much with backstories or motivations beyond setting the scene, which in this case is Europe in the cold war culture of the 1960s, from the ominous night behind the Iron Curtain to the sunny playground of the Mediterranean
Henry Cavill, who was a stiff as Superman, is quite charming in a cocky, calculating way as Napoleon Solo, a former thief pressed into service as America’s best dressed agent. His mission is to get Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an East German mechanic whose uncle happens to be a literal rocket scientist, over the wall to help stop some vague master criminal plot to unleash a nuclear bomb. Armie Hammer, dressed in funky proletariat chic so retro it’s cool, is stony Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin, who is after the same girl. So the rival nations decide to pair up their favorite cold warriors to stop the new international criminal threat, leading to a picture-postcard globe-hopping tour and a funky fashion show of sixties style. Oh yes, there’s also Hugh Grant getting in on the fun with his bemused dry wit. It won’t take fans of the TV show long to figure out his place in the scheme of things.
The plot is disposable at best —there’s an elegant mastermind (Elizabeth Debicki) who lives in the decadence of sleek sixties modernism with plans to destabilize the world for fun and profit—but Ritchie goes all out in reviving the Cold War sixties spy movie style and attitude, recalling Connery’s Bond movie with tongue firmly in cheek. The rival agents keep up their macho competitiveness and Vikander’s Gaby rolls her eyes at their juvenile antics, but in between we get elaborate set-pieces: foot chases and car races and physical stunts with real humans and physical objects rather than the manipulated pixels of CGI. Ritchie directs with an affection for sixties gimmickry both in terms of spy technology and filmmaking flourishes, splashing the film with multi-panel split screens (done digitally but evoking optical effects), zooms and whip pans, and the kind of splashy color that reminds us it’s all a fantasy.
It wasn’t particularly well-reviewed upon release and was not a summer hit—don’t expect a franchise to follow—but I found it refreshing and fun. Especially for a film where our two heroes are revealed to be borderline psychotics who have found their true calling in national service.
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The Man from U.N.C.L.E. [DVD]
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. [Blu-ray+DVD+Ultraviolet HD]
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. [Digital]
The Blu-ray includes five short featurettes and one collection of micro-featurettes, fun but a little slim for such a big production. The longest of the supplements—”Spy Vision: Recreating 60’s Cool” on designing the film and “A Higher Class of Hero” on creating the action sequences—are under 10 minutes apiece and the rest under five minutes each: a piece on the creator of the motorcycles in the film and portraits of the two stars and the director. “U.N.C.L.E.: On-Set Spy” collects four little pieces that run just over a minute apiece. Also includes bonus DVD and Ultraviolet HD copies of the film.