Adapting a TV series to film is usually a recipe for disaster, and dropping a dated spy-fi franchise in late summer between the twin juggernauts of Mission: Impossible and James Bond is something akin to a box office suicide mission; that said, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. beats those odds. It’s a brisk, smart, fun action comedy that takes the premise of the 1964-68 TV series, replaces the dated campiness with effortless cool, and dresses it in slick ’60s period detail that makes Mad Men look amateurish in comparison. To be fair, it is a case of style over substance, but the style is genuine and there’s more substance than one would expect.
Writer-director Guy RiTV hie and co-writer Lionel Wigram take a back-to-basics approach, keeping the period setting but tweaking the premise slightly: It’s 1963, the Cold War arms race is heating up in more ways than one, with a shadowy group of Nazi sympathizers led by an Italian heiress (Elizabeth Debicki) on the verge of completing a nuclear warhead for sale to the highest bidder.
The situation is desperate enough that the US and USSR opt for an unsteady alliance, and WWII veteran-turned-thief-turned-secret agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is forced to team up with KGB agent-in-need-of-anger-management counseling Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to assist the daughter (Alicia Vikander) of the ex-Nazi scientist being coerced into completing the nuke. It’s an elegantly simple premise that does its duty in setting up the prerequisite fights, shoot-outs, break-ins, chases (foot, car, and boat), seductions, and double-crosses, which it does with style.
Style is something U.N.C.L.E. has in spades. Richie filmed partly on location in Rome with a mildly grainy, Kodachrome-esque color palette by cinematographer John Mathieson, replicating the look of a ’60s-era movie. That, plus Oliver Scholl’s lush production design and Joanna Johnston’s ’60s Mod costumes make for a movie that is a s much fun to look at as it is to watch. Daniel Pemberton’s jazzy score rounds it out.
None of that would matter without strong leads, however, and Cavill and Hammer make for a strong duo, and it’s a blast watching there respective cocky, arrogant super-spies constantly attempt to one-up each other. Cavill channels the Robert Vaughn (the original Solo) with a touch of Cary Grant, and he plays Solo as so unflappable that he’s even suave while succumbing to tranquilizers. Hammer holds his own in the normally thankless role of sidekick/straight man; in an unusual twist, he also gets the romantic subplot.
Vikander, so alluring and enigmatic in the recent Ex Machina, gives a strong performance but is often overshadowed by her co-stars and the supporting players. Debicki makes for an imposing villainess (in more ways than one, given that she stands 6′ 3″), Jared Harris and Hugh Grant hold their own as veteran master spies, and Sylvester Groth is perfectly creepy as an ex-Nazi interrogator with a mad doctor streak.
It’s not as sleek and flashy as Mission: Impossible, or gritty and serious like the recent Bond movies, which makes it the perfect palette cleanser between the two, and a great way to wind down the summer blockbuster season.