Charismatic leads and stylish direction elevate ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’

Charles Liu

With the reboots of “Mission: Impossible” and “21 Jump Street,” Hollywood is no stranger to spinning old TV series into movies. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” a 1960s show about an American and a Russian agent teaming up to take on global threats during the Cold War, is the latest to receive the treatment, and its translation to the big screen is outrageously fun.

Directed by Guy Ritchie, “U.N.C.L.E.” is an action comedy that could do a little better in the action department, but it impresses with its wit and charming leads, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. Its production design is exquisite, and its direction is stylish and smart, elevating a script that, in lesser hands, would have produced a mediocre film.

During a suspenseful opening chase in East Germany, the film briskly introduces us to its heroes: top CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) and top KGB spy Illya Kuryakin (Hammer). Both are attempting to extract Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a missing nuclear scientist.

Solo succeeds, but he and Kuryakin are horrified to learn their respective organizations have decided to join forces to fight a common enemy. That enemy is a criminal organization led by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), who intends to proliferate nuclear technology around the world. Solo and Kuryakin are assigned to work with Teller to stop her.

Solo and Kuryakin despise each other from the outset, giving Cavill and Hammer many opportunities to mine for laughs. Their characters give each other pet names — Solo is “Cowboy;” Kuryakin is “Red Peril.” They clash over their differing methods of espionage, their pasts and, most amusingly, female fashion.

Cavill and Hammer are effortlessly charming and funny. The former affects a convincing American accent; the latter goes hard with his cartoonish Russian one. They play off each other effectively, making every scene they share a joy to watch.

Vikander, who has risen to prominence after “Ex Machina” and “Testament of Youth,” proves just as capable a comedian as her co-stars. Her best scene takes place early on in the film, in which Teller dances, then brawls, with Hammer’s Kuryakin. The fight paves way for a sometimes awkward, sometimes sizzling romance between the two that distracts from the plot, rather than serves it.

“U.N.C.L.E.” looks the part of a Cold War-era film. The costumes are slick and cool, with the dapper suits and fancy dresses often threatening to steal the spotlight from the actors themselves. The locales are lush and beautiful, and even hotel interiors and fashionable meeting rooms serve as interesting backdrops. There’s an admirable attention to detail from top to bottom.

In terms of action, “U.N.C.L.E.” doesn’t match the sheer inventiveness of the latest Marvel blockbuster “Ant-Man,” nor can it compete with the thrilling stunts of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” Ritchie stages the action rather conventionally, but he makes it memorable by focusing on amusing character moments, rather than on how they spill blood.

Ritchie’s direction is confident and superb. The film moves briskly, sweeping its audience along. It never drags and it never bores. The script is nothing special, but it’s Ritchie’s stylish sensibilities, along with the skills of his stars, that elevate the picture above the average spy flick. “U.N.C.L.E.” is fully aware it isn’t Shakespeare — it just wants to take audiences for a spin.

Ritchie occasionally gets carried away with the humor, resulting in little sense of urgency – “U.N.C.L.E.” is lighthearted to a fault, failing to make its viewers care about the stakes involved. It lacks the requisite tension a spy picture needs, and because “U.N.C.L.E.” is not a full-on farce in the vein of “Johnny English,” it’s hard to feel anything when the villains are dispatched.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is rousing escapism with a rote story made memorable by outstanding direction and fantastic performances from Cavill, Hammer and Vikander. It packs a powerful wallop, making it the perfect film to close out the summer.


  • "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
  • Running Time: 116 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13
  • Score: 7/10