By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
Russia’s increasing global belligerence raises concerns in most, but not all quarters. One part of America in particular is likely to relish the return of the old enemy. For Hollywood, there will be no need to drag out hard to locate Islamic terrorists, bland corporate villains or implausible neo-Nazis. The Cold War is back and it’s time to hang the celluloid bunting. Time has moved on of course. Celluloid is turning digital across the film industry, and East and West have been working together. Warner Bros. must be praising the geopolitical Gods because in Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., all the fun, and there is plenty to be had in this shallow and uneven spy romp, comes from the pairing of two supposed arch-enemies in CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).
I have fond and hazy memories from repeats of the 1960s TV series Ritchie and regular co-writer Lionel Wigram have brought to the big screen, a feeling remarkably similar to that left by this action/thriller/comedy hybrid. As is Ritchie’s way, the style, full of comic book split screens and exaggerated camera zooms and swerves, is a mile wide, the content an inch deep. With extravagant period detail, luxurious European settings (well Rome is luxurious, East Berlin less so), suave characters and expensive action sequences, he’s delivered a film overflowing with sizzle and lacking in steak. That this appears to be by design at least alleviates the slightly empty feeling beckoning come the closing credits.
Until then, there’s plenty to enjoy. The nominal story, little more than a thread to lead Solo and Kuryakin through a number of high-octane bonding experiences, sees the duo initially competing to spirit away East German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of a missing nuclear scientist. When Capitalism and Communism have finished battering each other, notably in a brilliantly executed chase through murky Berlin streets, the two agents are forced into partnership by their respective nations in a bid to locate Teller’s father before he’s coerced into making a new type of atom bomb for a rogue Nazi group.
Set in 1963, Ritchie manages to repeat his Sherlock Holmes (2009) trick by conjuring up a realistic period setting in an otherwise very modern film. Sweeping shots of Berlin, complete with dividing wall, quickly dive down into noir tinged alleys and shadowy espionage practices. Oliver Scholl’s production design then does an about turn as the mission takes them to Rome where Gaby’s sinister uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) is up to no good with Elizabeth Debicki’s poker faced villain Victoria, and her lothario husband Alexander (Luca Calvani). Here, we’re in a world of decadent hotels, tourist hotspots and stunning island getaways.
Enticing as this is, the real magic comes not in the setting but in the central pairing. With a story that threatens to disappear at any moment, everything hangs on Solo and Kuryakin. In the TV series, I always favoured the blond Russian; here I’m in Solo’s camp. Cavill has his master thief turned reluctant agent down to a tee. Dressed in a sharp suit and with hair held firmly in place, nothing, including the very real threat of torture via electric current and pliers, seems to ruffle him. He’s all rakish charm and withering putdowns. Hammer’s role is less plum mainly due to an irritating character trait he’s forced to run with. Kuryakin, otherwise a deadpan man mountain, appears to have anger management issues. Even basic slights send him into a twitching rage, jeopardising the mission more than once.
Luckily, the two together glide over this flaw. The heart of the film is their journey from enemies to allies. Both spy on each other, both plot double crosses, and both squabble over who’s the best spy, especially in a wonderful factory break-in that ends with Solo enjoying a bite to eat before eventually stepping in to save his partner by parking a truck on a boat. They manage to be likable and funny, providing the bulk of the entertainment. Vikander, stuck somewhere between co-lead and supporting role, fares less well. She seems initially uncertain, and then overly erratic. Forced to act as Kuryakin’s fiancé for the mission, a tepid romance blossoms all too quickly.
She’s not the only weak link. Despite a triumvirate of villains, there’s no one of note to fight against. Rudi emerges as the epitome of evil too late in the day, Victoria’s motivation is limited to a brief one line character description, and Alexander might as well not be there. Recognisable actors such as Jared Harris and Hugh Grant are also restricted to glorified cameos. This tilting so heavily in favour of Solo and Kuryakin slows down the pace whenever the plot separates them.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a film told on narrow rails. It accelerates exhilaratingly down every straight before slowing awkwardly for bends. Cavill and Hammer, having individually led tent pole summer releases (with mixed success it must be said) work brilliantly together, their world saving antics well-suited to Ritchie’s glib style. Everything outside their orbit pales significantly in comparison, but at its best, this new attempt at franchise building is frothy blockbuster heaven.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is out in cinemas August 14th.