Written by: James Jones
Rating: 3 stars
Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E is nothing if not stylish. Indeed, it is so achingly sleek in its escapist portrayal of Cold War Europe that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the biggest threat to the West came in the form of an untailored suit.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a reboot of the hit 1960s American TV show which paired CIA agent Napoleon Solo with KGB spy Illya Kuryakin to form an unlikely counter espionage duo, set on fighting a sinister organisation with world dominance in its sights. This big screen version offers much of the excitement and camaraderie of the original but Guy Ritchie’s film seems to focus a little too much on the glitz and the glamour of international espionage to let a well-paced and, importantly, meaningful plot emerge from underneath the 1960s elegance.
Henry Cavill, of Superman fame, takes on the role of Napoleon Solo, the wise-cracking and self-assured CIA agent whom we first meet on the East side of the Berlin Wall, attempting to smuggle out a German car mechanic called Gaby (played by the wonderful Alicia Vikander). Gaby’s father is a scientist under the employ of Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra, a wealthy and Nazi-admiring couple who are intent on building their own nuclear bomb. On the orders of Solo’s superiors, Gaby and Solo team up, together with the KGB’s finest agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) in order to defeat the Vinciguerras and prevent World War Three.
Much of the enjoyment to be gleaned from these proceedings lies with two main factors. Firstly, every frame of the film looks as though it has been lifted from the pages of Vogue. Much of the action takes place in the sumptuous locations and hotels of Rome and transports the audience into a bygone world which, although beautiful, never truly existed. Secondly, the film has a nice vein of humour running throughout, exemplified in the opening scene which may well feature this year’s most pedestrian, yet entertaining, car chase.
Henry Cavill wears a three-piece suit with supreme confidence and a hint of arrogance, giving the impression that Napoleon Solo would be just as at home on the catwalk as he would be breaking into a nuclear bunker. Solo’s quips and daredevil attitude play in amusing counterpoint to Armie Hammer’s more stiff and disciplined Soviet spy. Such contrasting characters makes them an entertaining duo to watch as they trade one-liners whilst saving the world, all the while keeping an eye on where the other’s gun is pointing.
Alicia Vikander’s character is equally as two-edged, quickly shedding her mechanics overalls in favour of Swinging Sixties dresses, cocktails and sunglasses, whilst holding her own opposite her male colleagues. Solo’s nemesis takes the fashionable form of Victoria Vinciguerra, Italian high-society’s answer to a fascist-sympathising Anna Wintour, played here by Elizabeth Debicki.
Debicki clear revels in the villainous role, dominating Cavill and taking great delight in her apocalyptic plans. It is a cast as athletically dapper as it is deadly and Ritchie takes great care in shooting the film with a nostalgic sensibility. Every scene glows with cinematography aimed at showing the world of U.N.C.L.E in all its unashamed opulence.
It is, unfortunately, this veneer of beautiful sophistication which defines and, in turn, undermines the film. The film’s plot never really seems to matter; the stakes for which Solo is playing never rise above the superficial. The action is rather uneven and, whilst there are a number of thrilling set-pieces (including a visceral three-way chase in the film’s third act), the interplay between exposition and action never really works.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E seems to have been cut in the workshops of Savile Row, favouring style over substance and emphasising beauty over pacing. As a piece of escapist viewing, it works and its slightly tongue-in-cheek tone is engaging. But in the end, no number of beautiful dresses or crisp white shirts can hide the superficiality of it all.
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