This past decade has seen something of a revival of the spy genre, with new franchises becoming box-office successes and older ones being reinvigorated. In 2015, Warner Bros. hoped to capitalise on this trend by reviving a Cold War-era TV series for the Big Screen, the result of which saw little reason to be entertained.
It’s the Sixties, and tensions between America and the Soviets are at their peak. One of the better equipped people in this tumultuous time is Napoleon Solo (Henry “Superman” Cavill), a CIA agent who possesses the wit, charm and skills necessary to handle any situation. His latest mission is to escort Gaby (Alicia Vikander), the niece of a Nazi scientist, from the Soviet-occupied East Berlin to the safety of West Berlin, where she can be offered protection by the United States.
After successfully completing his mission, Solo learns that an Italian corporation of Nazi sympathisers is planning on using Gaby’s uncle to help them create a nuclear weapon. Given the scale of the threat a nuclear-armed enterprise would pose, the CIA sees fit to collaborate with Russia’s secret service, the KGB, and has Solo pair with the latter’s top agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), to try and thwart their plans – a mission that will see their hostilities come to fruition.
When The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was first produced as a television series in the mid-Sixties, it presented a rather revolutionary notion: the greatest threat to political stability was not America or the Soviet Union, but those extraneous forces that sought to create conflict between the two. It’s a premise that has been utilised time and again in everything from the Bond movies to the works of Tom Clancy, and of course this very blockbuster, thereby leaving it looking tired and clichéd.
To its credit, the 2015 reimagining of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does all it can to distract viewers from this fact. The film is directed by Guy Ritchie, a Briton who has so often brought fun and flair to medium, as is the case here, with clever photography – one scene sees the camera mounted to the door of a safe as it opens – and a pretty groovy, era-appropriate soundtrack, featuring pop songs of the period and original compositions from Daniel Pemberton.
The greatest strength of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is its cast. Henry Cavill leads the way with a delightful performance as the oh-so-gosh-darn-charming Napoleon Solo, which he clearly enjoys. Future Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander supports him well as Gaby, as does Armie Hammer playing Kuryakin. Yet it is Hugh Grant, who plays British spy Alexander Waverly, who stands out most – while usually typecast as a bumbling romantic fool, here Grant plays a well-spoken, intelligent English gentleman, which is a nice change.
These pleasantries aside, there isn’t much else to admire, with several issues that dampen one’s enjoyment of the film, such as the flat humour. The banter between Solo and Kuryakin is really dull, and most of the jokes aren’t funny – though one or two do produce a chuckle. Another problem is the woeful sound editing, which has music overpowering scenes rather than being used to build tension. And then there’s the rushed, anti-climactic ending, which spoils an otherwise well-paced film.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had the potential to be a fun Sixties spy caper, and in many ways it is; but because of its sloppy execution, the movie only succeeds in being a mildly entertaining distraction. In other words, one shouldn’t head out of their way to see it.
This film was previously reviewed for YO Bendigo on August 24th, 2015.