The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a TV series that ran in the 60s, and focused on two secret agents, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, who work to keep the balance of power stable during the height of the cold war. It was known and loved for the style and humour (although the later episodes erred too far toward camp farce at times as the late 60s influences took hold). A film adaptation has been bandied around for a while now, until it landed in the lap of Guy Ritchie, who drew up his vision for the film and got the greenlight. The film is set before the formation of U.N.C.L.E and sees CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) assigned to team up to prevent a terror plot involving nuclear weapons. The pair, having already met as opponents in the film’s opening act, have a rocky relationship, but must learn to work together to prevent world disaster.
One of the most refreshing things about this reboot of an old franchise is that it keeps to the setting of the original, and doesn’t try to become modernised. Unlike the Mission Impossible films, or the A-Team film, Man From U.N.C.L.E embraces the 60s aesthetic with aplomb. The clothes are sixties chic, the music is packed with the flavour of the era, and the locations are as well chosen as any seen in Conner era Bond films. Guy Ritchie brings a little of his own style to the direction, with some such as split screen action feeling perfectly suited to the settings, but other moments are a muddle of confusing cuts with none of the fluidity of action direction that we saw in the recent Sherlock Holmes films. The directors shtick of retelling key moments from different viewpoints, each time telling us something extra to eventually piece the facts together is put to good use here, and generally the film is a solid update of the old material.
However, there is something missing. The generic plot does the trick for starting the potential franchise off, but the leads take too long to settle into their roles, and a lot of their interaction feels flat. Support cast do a lot better in their roles, from Hugh Grant and Jared Harris as agency bosses, but most importantly Alicia Vikander as Gabby, the only lead the agents have on the assignment, who adds glamour and charm to the film, as well as being the glue that keeps the two agents together. The wit is handled well enough, but sometimes misses the mark, and feels a little forced.
As far as origin tales go, the film does a lot better than many other franchises manage, and entertains enough even if it won’t leave any lasting impression. The biggest problem is that in an era dominated by some of the best spy films (Bond, Mission Impossible, and Bourne), U.N.C.L.E. just doesn’t quite stand out enough. By the end of the film, however, the seeds are sown for future films in the franchise to run, and I’d be interested to see more.