Don’t take this film too seriously— the filmmakers certainly don’t–and yet, that is actually the key element of its charm: its irreverent outlook on a tension-filled Cold War-era and its calm, often sarcastic witticisms combined with high class 1960’s fashion and no small amount of glamour gives the film a positively nostalgic allure. Forgoing the dramatic tension of most Cold War films, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feels more like a James Bond spoof with deadpan humor and a present-day twist. And it’s thoroughly enjoyable.
CIA agent Napoleon Solo extracts the fierce Gabrielle (Gabby) Teller—played to rebellious excellence by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander—from the heavily fortified 1963 East Berlin. Gabby, who works as a car mechanic and has an estranged uncle who works for the manager of a shipping company and the film’s own femme fatale, Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). Vinciguerra and her husband plan to use Gabby’s father to create her own nuclear weapon. Kuryakin, Solo, and Gabby are then forced to work together to prevent this—though with the KGB and CIA involved, you can be sure their countries have ulterior motives behind this collaboration and their agents have a second set of orders to carry out.
The film rides on the relationship between the rival states’ agents. British actor Henry Cavill is every inch the American Napoleon Solo: a handsome, womanizing ex-con who is now one of the CIA’s top agents. He looks about as comfortable in a suit as Don Draper, but with the cavalier attitude evocative of Sherlock Holmes on a case, and the sassiest eyebrows in the business. His character is truly at his best when paired with Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin, a giant KGB agent with anger management issues, a mysteriously violent past, and a fierce rivalry with Solo. Their banter over the course of the film feels like the beginnings of a rivals-turned-buddy cop relationship, a play Cavill and Hammer actually sell despite the almost laughable situation. Kuryakin’s comically serious attitude contrasts with Solo’s polished nonchalance in a predictable, yet certainly amusing, fashion; through pacing, understated one-liners, impressive stunts, and a whole lot of attitude, the filmmakers manage to make this odd co-working scenario entertaining and fun—if only for those willing to indulge their suspension of disbelief.
Guy Ritchie—director of Sherlock Holmes and Snatch—delivers in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. his trademark fast-paced action, quick editing, and humorously insulting banter in his movie interpretation of the original 1964 television series of the same name. Mixing suits and violence, the volcano ready to blow in Kuryakin with the flirtatious and mysterious Gabby, the threat of nuclear war with the team’s comedic reluctance to work together, and even the addition of Hugh Grant in a small role as a British intelligence officer makes the film feel like cocktail of elements from different genres. To some, it may appear messy or inconsistent, but the lightness of heart implies less a sense of groundbreaking filmmaking, but rather a return to what movies were originally made for: entertainment.