If you’re a purist who prefers a more suave and quipping James Bond, chances are you aren’t a huge fan of the grittier contemporary take on the character. Luckily, we’ve been getting a bunch of retro throwbacks lately that are more in the tradition of 60’s spy thrillers. Kingsman: Secret Service was equal parts satire and homage to 007. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation had all the thrills, humor, and whimsy of a classic Bond adventure. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is yet another salute to the old fashion spy genre that’s as neat and satisfying as a shaken martini.
In many respects, each episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series was like a mini James Bond adventure. Not only did MGM produce the two franchises, but Ian Fleming also created both James Bond and Napoleon Solo. This film version of the same name stars Henry Cavill stars as Solo, a CIA agent with a knack for getting out of sticky situations. Solo is pursued by Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin, a stone-faced KGB operative. They eventually find themselves on the same side, however, when the Americans and Russians team up to take down a criminal organization producing nuclear weapons. Smack-dab in the middle of this odd couple is Alicia Vikander as Gaby Teller, who plays a crucial role in penetrating the organization.
It isn’t at all surprising that Cavill was once up for the role of James Bond. In addition to being one of the most polished actors around, he’s incredibly charismatic, witty, and just a ton of fun to watch. It’s too bad that the brooding script for Man of Steel didn’t allow Cavill much room to show off his charming side, but he simply shines in this role. He acts as a wonderful foil for Hammer’s Kuryakin, who manages to get in several good laughs despite his no-nonsense persona. The chemistry between these two actors is what makes this movie.
As for Vikander, she’s an easy contender for breakout actress of the year between Ex Machina and now this. Elegant, versatile, and drop-dead gorgeous, she has all the makings of a timeless movie star. Occasionally you might wish that there was more of Vikander, but her character wasn’t actually in the original series anyway. We also get some solid supporting work from Hugh Grant as the head of U.N.C.L.E. and Elizabeth Debick as a bombshell literally planning on dropping a bomb. The only one who seems miscast is the usually great Jared Harris, who puts on a pretty hokey American accent. He’s not in it for too long, though, with the spotlight wisely keeping the focus on our leads.
Director Guy Ritchie is tailor-made for an adaptation such of this. He stays true to the look and tone of a 60’s spy adventure while also incorporating his own signature. Ritchie additionally energizes the film with an atmospheric soundtrack and Daniel Pemberton’s score really takes the audience back to the glory days of spy thrillers. It’s too bad the story is at times muddled and forgettable, although movies like this are really more about style over substance. That may sound shallow, but sometimes a little colorful escapism is good for the mind. That’s why people go on vacation and that’s exactly what The Man From U.N.C.L.E. often feels like. The movie knows what it wants to be and it succeeds with plenty of class.