“Mod” is the first word that springs to mind when describing The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and it also functions as a pretty effective review in and of itself. The signature ‘60s British subculture seems to be injected into this film’s veins, even though few of the characters are British and they never once step foot in Great Britain despite traveling throughout Europe in this swinging spy game. It’s just a posh, slick, stylish ride that is fueled by swagger and has attitude to burn. And it’s about as fun as any other summer spectacle this year.
That swagger and attitude owes a lot to the co-writer and director, Guy Ritchie, who has built his career on those two adjectives, which unfailingly imbue each of his films…even if there’s not much else other than that. Some have even referred to Ritchie as more of a stylist than a director, though it’s interesting that there is nevertheless a certain auteurist quality to Ritchie’s work, even in his regulated studio efforts – always a highly stylized blend of jaunty comedy, ridiculously intricate plotting, and playful vulgarity. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t merely fit that mold, it sort of redefines it, since there are clear period underpinnings to dictate its panache and the screenplay is playfully clever without devolving into incomprehensible blather, as some previous Ritchie films certainly have.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the latest entry in the reboot bonanza that is currently dominating cinema screens, though it feels like less of a rote copycat job since the original TV series is now a relic that likely won’t be all that familiar to modern audiences. As a result, Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram aren’t hindered by silly stuff like “faithfulness to the source material” and are free to mold the basic premise to a rollicking action-comedy template. Add a cast of actors who are fully aware of their extreme cinematic charisma and the result is a glitzy charmer with classical vibes and post-modern hipness.
Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are paired as the film’s central duo, in an unexpected casting coup that helps define the success of the movie. Cavill is American CIA agent Napoleon Solo, who is the very embodiment of debonair. Hammer is Soviet operative Illya Kuryakin, who operates on an intense hair-trigger. They are paired by their respective governments to topple an upstart criminal organization with nuclear capability. The result is a tempestuous clash of fire and ice, ratcheted to a fever pitch by the inclusion of Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a German auto mechanic whose estranged father is a former Nazi engineer presumed to be the source of the nuclear threat.
There are plenty of twists and turns, both conventional and unconventional; the film is at its most creative when it allows a scene to play out in full, then doubles back to reveal the hidden motives behind each word and action. But beyond any narrative trickery, which is standard in any espionage thriller, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. operates on the thick and effortless charm of its actors, whose beauty is mesmerizing and whose chemistry is explosive. Cavill is positively magnetic here, like a descendent of Cary Grant, only more polished and suave. He was born for a role like this. Hammer is the ideal counterpoint, a gruff and robotic Soviet spy whose softer side is slowly unveiled. And Vikander is absolute magic, owning every scene in which she appears. It’s hard to tell whether the actors’ endless stream of cool informs the narrative, or if the narrative’s cheeky energy helps accentuate the performances, but either way, the result is a huge win for the audience. As we enter the annual late summer/early fall dumping ground for bad movies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., with its sassy wit, boisterous action, and decidedly “mod” attitude, may well be the last great ride of summer 2015.