The Man from U.N.C.L.E., starring Henry Cavill, hits the right notes in so many places. The plot of the comedy/action film revolves around the serious business of the Cold War but is interspersed with just the right amount of humor; it doesn’t overwhelm the story.
One of my favorite aspects of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the casting. The tension between Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) seems genuine and is never fully abated. Cavill, who is normally given serious roles, plays a suave, comedic man; Hammer, who is normally cast in less serious roles, plays the serious Slav character. Gaby Teller (Alicia Vilkander) rides the line between utterly competent driver/mechanic and innocent young woman perfectly. While kept to a fairly small role, Elizabeth Debicki’s evil, fascist femme fatale is silky smooth and as cold as she is beautiful. (Debicki plays a starkly different role in a brilliant short film, Gödel Incomplete). Other standouts are Hugh Grant as Waverley and Jared Harris as Sanders, with a huge nod to Sylvester Groth as Uncle Rudi.
Critics have complained that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does not have a great plot. It may be an overdone plot, sure, but for a Cold War movie, it plays out the dangers of the time as well as any film. In terms of the film’s overall look, the costuming, the set of the time period, and the interactions amongst the characters are all fabulous. Despite all of this goodness, it nears but doesn’t quite seem to reach the level of, say, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but it certainly far surpasses something like Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Stepping back through memory lane, this film was based on a TV show set in the mid-60s with the premise of two agents from enemy sides of the Cold War being thrown together to solve the world’s problems in the form of T.H.R.U.S.H. In the movie, much like To Catch A Thief, Solo was caught stealing; to mitigate his sentence, he must work for the U.S. government. Kuryakin, on the other hand, is a dedicated Russian spy. Not surprisingly, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, also inspired The Man from U.N.C.L.E; the character of Solo, in particular, is a nod to James Bond.
Not only does the movie nail the look of the 60s, with both Ms. Vilkander and Ms. Debicki carrying this off stunningly, but it also conveys the feel of the time as well. Difficult relations with Russia in a world where WWII was still a fresh memory created enormous tension, even in the midst of great economic expansion. It was, as Dickens might say, the best of times and the worst of times. While much of what we see in the movie has been shown in many other similar movies, there are enough twists and certainly enough panache to earn a fresh look from viewers. Back in the day, casting a female as the main villain or even having a strong female character like Gaby Teller’s would be highly unlikely in such a film.
One surprising factor is the amount of edginess in this film; director Guy Ritchie doesn’t pull out any unexpected stops, and the film is presented more as a mainstream comedy/action film than a crazy wacko comedy/drama. Finally, Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack is sublime. It meshes 60s music from all over the world with Pemberton’s perfect background to the movie. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Roberta Flack better than on “Compared To What.”