Guy Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” isn’t your uncle’s “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Ritchie’s rendition is jazzier — a slick, superhero-worthy origin story full of choreographed car chases, political capture-the-flag, beautiful clothing (designed by Joanna Johnston) and humorous showmanship.
Ritchie’s revival is a prequel to Sam Rolfe’s 1960s hit television series, which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as dashing international spies. The acronym U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law Enforcement. As of 1963, when the film takes place, it did not exist.
Ritchie along with “Sherlock Holmes” writer Lionel Wigrim invent the organization’s back story, taking the spy firm’s two principle characters and uniting them through international strife.
Brit Henry Cavill plays the suave American CIA operative, Napolean Solo, and American Armie Hammer plays his smart KGB counterpart, Illya Kuryakin. Next to each other, they look like a Gallant and Goofus cartoon, providing an instructive guide to counter-terrorism.
Cavill is as charming as Don Draper — a gentlemen who sparkles when he smiles. (Like “Mad Men’s” Draper, Cavill also reports to actor Jared Harris; Harris played Lane Pryce in “Mad Men.”) Hammer is stiffer, with his strong Russian-accented English and quick temper. Their staged testosterone-ridden, cat-and-mouse, spy vs. spy pig-tail pulling is the pulse of the movie. Solo trails Kuryakin on his motorcycle. Kuryakin bugs Solo’s hotel room. They trade fists and insults. But before things get too out of hand, Ritchie reins them in and lets us laugh about it.
The result is harmless fun and the boys play with great sportsmanship. Underneath the umbrella of the Cold War, they’re competing for the same nuclear missile: German mechanic Gaby Teller (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander).
Teller’s the bridge between their respective agencies and blueprints to nuclear weapons. Her estranged father is highly accomplished former-Nazi weapons specialist Udo (Christian Berkel). Udo, however, has been kidnapped by a dangerous third party — wealthy Italian widow Victoria Vinciguerra (Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki) — and Gaby’s their only ticket to find him.
Compared to the television show, Ritchie’s film is certainly more colorful (the show was originally released in black and white in 1964 before it was switched to color for its second to fourth seasons) — from its wardrobe (which includes vintage clothing) to its music. Daniel Pemberton’s fun and rhythmic soundtrack is full of mysterious, jazzy and driving numbers as well as Latin-influenced tracks laced with Western twangs. Peppino Gagliardi’s Italian ballad “Che Vuole Questa Musica Stasera” (Who Wants This Music Tonight?) underscores a boat chase. Meanwhile, Vikander and Hammer do some dirty dancing in the bedroom to Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.”
Although “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” revival isn’t the most memorable or thought-provoking spy caper (Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” seems to have more substance, and I’m sure you have your own personal favorites), it’s a smooth and entertaining addition to your summer blockbuster diet: superfluous, but satisfying.
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was directed by Guy Ritchie and written by Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman and David Campbell Wilson based on Sam Rolfe’s 1964 television series.