We’re used to Bond, Bourne and the “Mission Impossible” team: modern cinematic spies who rely on cutting-edge technology to uncover secrets and bring down criminal organizations. The battlefield is often a digital one, and the side with the better technology is more likely to win. So it’s interesting to travel back to the Cold War-era 1960s, where the tools of espionage were decidedly lower-tech but the threats were just as dangerous.
Guy Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” based on the 1960s TV show, takes us back to this era, capturing a “Bond” meets “Mad Men” vibe. It follows two Cold War spies — one Russian, one American — who are forced to look past their countries’ own nuclear stand-off to combat a worse threat. Their globe-trotting assignment blurs the lines between friend and foe as they try to stop a covert Nazi terrorist organization from building a nuclear missile.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a fun, fairly lightweight summer spy flick. While the final product is not as strong as it could have been, it’s still stylish and entertaining, particularly for those who enjoy retro-era movies.
Henry Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, an American CIA agent who was caught selling stolen art on the black market after the second World War. Instead of sending him to jail, the CIA recruits him, and he has since become their best agent. Although Cavill (who also played Superman in “Man of Steel”) certainly looks the part of “suave ‘60s spy,” he comes off as just a bit flat in this role. I didn’t quite buy him as the ex-con womanizer the character is supposed to be, and he seems a little too formal and clean-cut. Armie Hammer, on the other hand, is a surprisingly good fit as Russian KGB agent Illya Kuryakin. His character first appears emotionless and slightly unhinged, but Hammer makes Kuryakin more sympathetic, revealing a painful childhood and a sense of concern for his team members (though you’d be hard-pressed to get Kuryakin to admit this).
Hammer also has nice chemistry with co-star Alicia Vikander, who plays an East German mechanic who helps the spies on their mission. Vikander has been receiving quite a bit of buzz as an actress in Hollywood recently, and she’s a fun addition to the team, turning out to be more than just a damsel in distress. She and Kuryakin’s sweetly awkward almost-romance is a nice touch.
While the movie’s script could have been stronger, there’s no faulting Guy Ritchie in terms of style. I loved his slightly unconventional, steampunk take on “Sherlock Holmes,” and his distinctive cinematography is on full display here as well. He crafts a film that’s retro enough to feel authentic but fresh enough that it doesn’t feel dated. We’ve all seen plenty of spy flicks, but there are some fun surprises here. I liked Ritchie’s creative use of split screen shots, particularly in the scene where Solo and Kuryakin break into an enemy shipping yard. The film’s costumes and music also add to the retro vibe, and there are several memorable witty moments, such as an unexpected boat rescue which involves Solo driving a truck into a body of water. In fact, I think Ritchie could have injected even more humor into the film.
The film received a decent score from Rotten Tomatoes — about 70 percent — but under-performed at the box office. Although the movie is fun, it’s tough to market it to general audiences who may not be familiar with the TV show. “Straight Outta Compton” occupied a lot of the new release buzz this past weekend, and “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is still playing well. We probably won’t get a sequel, which is a shame, because I would have liked to see Ritchie get a second crack at the franchise.