With the arrival of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. after twenty-plus years in development, we've completed the series-to-feature process for all four major espionage-themed TV shows of the 1960s. The Mission: Impossible movies began their run in 1996, The Avengers (no, not those Avengers) arrived in 1998, and I Spy hit cineplexes in 2002. While the latter two rightly died quick deaths both critically and at the turnstile, Mission: Impossible is still going strong (as we just discussed a few weeks ago), which left the big screen U.N.C.L.E. (That's the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, if you're wondering) as the lone question mark.
Could this most quintessentially '60s of spy skeins (developed by Sam Rolfe, with an able assist from none other than 007 creator Ian Fleming himself) follow in the long-lasting franchise footsteps of Tom Cruise's Mission agent Ethan Hunt? (Ironically enough, Cruise was actually in negotiations at one point to topline an earlier iteration of U.N.C.L.E.) Well, the jury is obviously still out as far as the "franchise" part goes, but as for this initial installment, the Guy Ritchie-directed pic manages to clear a space for itself that not only distinguishes it from its fellow travelers in this genre, but also makes a case for its own relevance.
Probably the smartest decisions the creatives made was to set the feature adaptation in the same 1960s milieu as the show. By playing out against a Cold War backdrop rather than trying to update the premise and square peg it into the post-Glasnost era, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. occupies the same heightened reality fantasyland that those early James Bond movies now exist in for us. The film stars current Superman Henry Cavill as debonaire CIA agent Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn in the '64-'68 series, as well as its follow-ups) and Armie Hammer as KGB assassin Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum on TV).
Although the pair begin as nemeses, extenuating geopolitical circumstances force them together in pursuit of a common goal: locate a missing rocket scientist and rescue him from Nazi sympathizers (Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani) who want him to build a nuclear bomb. (Also in the mix is Alicia Vikander, luminous in Ex Machina earlier this year, as the scientist's daughter.) Now, if you've seen enough buddy cop movies (or are aware of the premise of the TV show this movie is based on), you can probably guess that Solo and Kuryakin find a way to get along, and they may even grow fond of each other along the way.
As such, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is less about any particular surprises the script (by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram) may offer -- though, admittedly, there are a few. Instead, it's similar to the Bond formula in that it's all about the simple pleasure of knowing things have to come to a preordained conclusion, and watching it done well. Stylistically, U.N.C.L.E. is very much of a piece with Ritchie's two Sherlock Holmes flicks (the first of which I enjoyed quite a bit, the second less so), so I suspect one's appreciation for it will depend greatly on their tolerance for the Snatch helmer's specific tics.
Of course, the real joy of the film is in watching the game cast (which includes Hugh Grant and Jared Harris) go through their paces. Cavill in particular is a lot of fun as Our Man Solo, adopting an exaggerated affect to his delivery that neatly mimics Vaughn's staccato style and also feels like the character's sly commentary on the genre itself, as if he's standing to the side and winking at the audience. Hammer arguably has the tougher job: trying to make his character seem sympathetic and understandable all while speaking in a Russian accent that could very easily tip into Boris Badanov territory. Luckily, he manages to pulls it off admirably.
From Kingsman earlier this year and Mission: Impossible last month to the 007 epic Spectre in November, 2015 is proving quite the fertile year for big screen spying (and that's not even mentioning Melissa McCarthy in Spy!). Though The Man From U.N.C.L.E. lacks the wit of Kingsman and the spectacle of Rogue Nation (any comparisons to the new Bond will have to wait, natch), it nonetheless sits comfortably alongside its spy movie siblings. As is to be expected with a film of this sort, the conclusion leaves the door open for a return visit or two with Solo and Kuryakin. And while I don't think a sequel is necessary or required, I'd be happy to join them on another assignment. B
For more movie talk, including more thoughts on the latest Mission: Impossible opus, check out the latest MovieFilm Podcast at the link or via the embed below: