Guns, heists, spies, and Russian accents abound in this '60s action flick.
The Hollywood rush to adapt and reboot whatever has mostly been directed at shallow cash cows, as they require mediocre effort to bring in a return, but this time a cultural icon is making it to the big screen, '60s spy show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. This is one of the few cases in which a reboot is arguably necessary. The original TV show was incredibly popular from the first season, but with new showrunners every season, it quickly devolved from clever action to campy spoof. By the time the executives realized the over-the-top self-parody wasn't working and called for a return to the more serious approach of the beginning, most of the viewers had jumped ship. Director and screenwriter Guy Ritchie has brought back this cultural icon in his screen adaptation, faithful to the original slick wit of the show.
The year is 1963, and ex-con turned CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is in East Berlin tracking down Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter to a missing former Nazi scientist who had worked for the U.S. government. Top KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) picks up on Solo's plan and gives chase, but Solo and Gabby manage to make it over the Berlin Wall and into West Berlin where a pick-up is waiting for them. They make their escape and leave Kuryakin in the dust.
Solo meets with Saunders (Jared Harris), his handler with the CIA, in a men's restroom to be briefed on his next mission when Kuryakin, of course, reappears. The two briefly tussle before Saunders and Kuryakin's handler Oleg (Misha Kuznetsov) break them up with the news that they are now partners. Gabby's uncle Rudi has been working for an Italian shipping company owned by a couple with ties to former Nazis, Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). Gabby's father is working for them to create a nuclear weapon, and the CIA and KGB will be working together to extract him from the Vinciguerras' grasp.
Later, both Solo and Kuryakin are each told individually to get the research and data Gabby's father has gathered for their respective countries despite supposedly being a team now. In addition to this conflict, Gabby gets angry upon learning of the partnership with Kuryakin, and his cover as her architect fiancé does not help. Solo, undercover as an art "collector," convinces her to run with it, as they'll be able to find her father this way. And so the trio arrives in Rome in their respective disguises, but only a few moments after checking into their hotel, they realize that someone is following them.
The plot is the usual cliché-ridden affair of femme fatales, dastardly plans, foiled heists, and undercover roleplay that follow spy cinema. The humor of the clash between American and Russian spies may give it a nice twist, but neither Napoleon nor Illya has much substance as far as character development goes, and the bit of romance that results at the end is rather hasty. Sadly, that's the result of a trite narrative.
Despite its unsurprising story, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. still manages to entice and excite thanks to its commitment to the '60s period both in aesthetic and dialogue and to its strong acting performances. Henry Cavill nails the suave, almost tongue-in-cheek delivery of the era with such aplomb that one may even forget Cavill is actually a Brit. And while Armie Hammer's Russian accent is unconvincing at best, Hammer manages to exude charisma and is an undoubtedly striking presence on the screen. Breakout star Alicia Vikander, though, steals the show as Gabby. Smart, cunning, and playful, Vikander brings the most depth and complexity to the film, and the film desperately needs it. Thankfully, the great locations and styling paired with great acting make up for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s lack of substance.
Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.