It isn’t easy adapting a TV show to the big screen, much less a show like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., where the politics and the narratives are soaked in Cold War ideology. Some would be inspired to modernize the show, turning it into a more gritty reboot -- much like the ongoing Mission: Impossible series. While that tactic works if you know how to use it, there’s also nothing wrong with keeping the story in its original period, which is what Guy Richie does with his film adaptation of the classic spy franchise. This is one of many intelligent decisions Richie has made to play to his strengths, and a huge part of what makes The Man From U.N.C.L.E. one of the most refreshing and entertaining films of this summer.
With World War II finished, and the Cold War arms race heating up, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are forced by their respective spy chiefs to team up. Their mission is to assist the daughter (Alicia Vikander) of a former Nazi scientist in locating her father, who’s helping an evil shipping heiress (Elizabeth Debicki) craft and sell an atom bomb. If they can control their tempers, their libidos, and their trigger fingers, they might just save the world.
In the year with both Kingsman: The Secret Service and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation before it, and the Spectre of James Bond yet to come, there’s one weapon The Man From U.N.C.L.E. uses to effectively distinguish itself from the pack: charm, and lots of it. Whether it’s Napoleon and Illya’s witty banter, the absolutely gorgeous period settings and costumes, or the mix of era-appropriate music with Daniel Pemberton’s lushly retro score, there’s always something that manages to catch the eye or the ear. Most important, the script penned by Guy Richie and Lionel Wigram reflects the trademark double entendres and comedic bickering that they injected into the Sherlock Holmes series.
While charm is the name of the game with The Man From U.N.C.L.E., there’s also the prerequisite amount of action and adventure involved. After all, what’s a spy picture without infiltration, car chases, gun fights, and a couple of warheads? But even with the usual thrilling set pieces, Richie has fun with the unique ways he presents them. In one set piece, a character who isn’t in the action is observing the proceedings, and we’re focused mostly on their reactions to the action that we’re seeing in a windshield’s reflection. Despite the scene description you’ve just read, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. isn’t afraid to kick some ass, it realizes that we’ve seen this sort of stuff before, and it tries to give us a fresh perspective on mayhem and chaos.
The main difference between Richie’s U.N.C.L.E. and his Sherlock series is that instead of an all-out free for all of comedy and action, he approaches this film with a more focused sense of gravity. Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo could be throwing a quip in one moment and preparing to fall under the powers of enemy sedation the next. Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin is a spy who needs to control his rage, and is struggling with some issues involving family pride. Both are made of the stuff that typical spy movies forget to throw in. The only real problem that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. runs into is that the story routinely shifts fortunes via a series of agents crossing agents. The film relies on so many turns that you can kind of see the biggest ones coming, one of which is spoiled in the trailers for the film. Also, if you’re a fan of the original show, you’ll see where one character’s introduction is going from a mile away; but even with these minor notes, the film manages not to be weighed down.
At the heart of Guy Richie’s latest project is the trio of Cavill and Hammer’s spies, as well as Alicia Vikander’s genius mechanic/accomplice, Gaby. As strong and capable as her male counterparts, Gaby spends most of the film interacting - and occasionally flirting - with Illya. Thankfully, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. resists turning this into a love triangle, and instead uses Napoleon Solo as a comedic third wheel when it comes to the romantic angle. And when it comes to the actual saving-the-world angle, Vikander’s Gaby is given equal weight and enough action in the plot to prevent her from becoming a damsel in distress (which is appreciated).
For a film that started its life as a Steven Soderbergh / George Clooney vehicle, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is pretty close to the work those two collaborators would have probably generated -- as this is very much a film in the spirit of the Oceans franchise. It is one of those rare birds that manages to take the source material and do right by its predecessor, while having its own fun creating a unique avenue of enjoyment. The chemistry between the three leads is magnificent, and the film doesn’t run so much as glide through its entirety; taking you, the audience, along for the ride. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a ride well worth the price of admission, and a fun closing act to this year’s summer season.