As big screen adaptations go, this feels like a strange choice. On paper, you can see what was going through the minds of Guy Ritchie and Warner Bros. at the time: “people are sick of tough and gritty spy movies - bring back the gadgets and the quips!” But even as a comedy, a period spy thriller seems like a tough sell for a big budget summer film.
That's a shame (and don't even get me started on the 'narrowing audience tastes / safe studio bets' problem), because beneath the enormous “huh?” factor which shouldn't even exist, Ritchie (SNATCH; SHERLOCK HOLMES) has made a rollicking film, bringing every ounce of his trademark style. Cat burglar turned C.I.A. puppet Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is forced to work with KGB anger management case Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) for the greater good. The pair are sent to find the uncle of German mechanic Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander) before he can play his part in building a nuclear device for some Nazi-descended Italians. Or something.
The hokeyness of the old ‘kidnapped scientist’ plot and the pin-sharp retro feel – particularly in the production and costume designs, in Daniel Pemberton’s Schifrin/Morricone-fused score, and in the meticulous choreography between camera and splitscreen editing – adds volumes to Ritchie’s vibe; the sheer energy and fizz of the action on screen is almost enough to cover the film’s muddy midsection and chaotic second half. Cavill is clearly relishing his Roger Moore moment (although you can see why he missed out on Bond when that character was getting the gritted-down reboot), while Hammer and Vikander make fine sparring partners.
(Side note: There’s quite a feat of international casting here: the main cast is made up of an American playing a Russian, two Brits playing Americans, a Swede playing a German, and a Frenchwoman playing an Italian. Hugh Grant, presumably scared by criticisms of CLOUD ATLAS, has gone back to playing himself.)
There’s obviously a long game being played here, as this is very much an origin story. Sadly that means we only get a taste of Grant as Waverly (another key cast member of the show) - but if luck is just, Ritchie’s long odds will pay off and there will be more to come.
In the meantime though, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is up against THE PRINCESS BRIDE factor: if they can get them through the doors, the audience will most likely have a great time; the real trick is finding said audience for a show not many young people have even heard of, not all middle aged folk will have seen (I’ve watched a lot of old telly, but I don’t remember this running on any Australian network), and not many older viewers were all that bothered about in the first place. But to paraphrase Steven Soderbergh, you should never remake something done perfectly the first time; this worth your time and money – a film that looks and sounds great on a big screen, regardless of its seemingly questionable existence.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is released August 13 in Australia and NZ, and August 14 in the US and UK.