A cross between James Bond and Get Smart is a simplistic but not altogether inaccurate summation of this latest television adaptation to reach cinema screens. Helmed by Guy Ritchie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E has everything we have come to expect from the British director. Rapid-fire editing, visual gimmickry (split screen, overt transitions), comedic violence and witty repartee amongst the characters are all on display. However, this espionage thriller set in 1963 is a case of style over substance as a trio of handsome, immaculately costumed characters set about retrieving a nuclear warhead from an international crime syndicate. In his first leading role since Man of Steel, Henry Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, a cocky former criminal recruited to work for the CIA who is forced to team with KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to locate a missing German scientist believed to be leading the rogue nuclear program, perhaps against his will. Joining the two men on their mission is sassy motor mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), who just happens to be the estranged daughter of said scientist.
Like Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, the relationship between Cavill and Hammer is one of distrust and perpetual one-upmanship that ultimately leads to a grudging acceptance of their mandated mutual mission to infiltrate the criminal cartel and curtail their nuclear ambitions. Free of the shackles of the uptight Clark Kent and his alter-ego superhero, Cavill is actually quite effective as the chiselled charmer who does quite literally channel both Bond and Maxwell Smart in his portrayal. One moment he is charming a hotel clerk out of her clothes within minutes of meeting her while later he sits idly by consuming wine and food from an unattended lunch hamper while his partner tries desperately to outrun his pursuers in a speedboat chase. Hammer has far fewer opportunities to charm and his character is as much a caricature as one could possibly be, including the obligatory dodgy Russian accent. Despite her obvious assets – she is beautiful and a highly capable actress as evidenced in her remarkable performance in Ex-Machina – Vikander is under-utilised as the sexy, self-assured Gaby, whose collection of iconic outfits are one of many visual delights in the film.
Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) hams it up as the villainous Contessa, while Hugh Grant is amusing as genial British intelligence operative Alexander Waverly. In fact, the film would be benefit from more of Grant’s sardonic presence. There are a suite of ham-fisted criminal types in the mix, not the least of which is Rudi (Sylvester Groth), whose constantly malfunctioning torture machine is reminiscent of the failings and failures of Siegfried, that most hapless of KAOS agents. The action sequences are mostly well-staged if uncomplicated; the opening moments of the film feature a vehicular pursuit through the streets of the newly segregated Berlin that introduces our three main characters to us and each other.
Ritchie’s films have always had a kinetic energy to them; effervescent, masculine narratives delivered at a frantic pace. On this occasion though, the pace inhibits our ability to saviour the splendour of the various European locales and the artefacts of the era, which are beautifully rendered by cinematographer John Mathieson and the team responsible for production design and costuming. At a time when so many action movies are entrenched in future worlds, The Man from U.N.C.L.E is very much a throwback to classic spy movies and the swinging ‘60’s. It’s not particularly deep or insightful and the distinct lack of sex, profanity or on-screen violence not only makes the film accessible to the widest possible audience, it is also very much in keeping with the tone of the original television series.