Decades before the fall of the Iron Curtain, two spies face off in a bombed out section of East Berlin. The first spy, Solo (Henry Cavill, Man of Steel, Immortals) is an American CIA agent. The second, Illya (Armie Hammer; The Lone Ranger, The Social Network) is a Russian KGB agent. They’re on separate missions to track down a German auto mechanic, Gaby (Alicia Vikander following up her near-perfect turn as Ava from Ex Machina) whose family is involved in a nuclear arms skirmish. And they hate each other. They all hate each other.
After the fantastic chase which opens The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Solo and Illya are quickly made partners, forced to work together despite the fact that (say it with me now…) they hate each other. They all hate each other.
Essentially a buddy-cop movie with spies, the film is based on a popular 1960’s TV show spun from the imaginations of Norman Felton and James Bond creator Ian Fleming. The plot is much less twisty and double-crossy than you’d think. A mysterious criminal organization is secretly constructing a nuclear bomb and they need Gaby’s help to stop ’em. That’s basically it.
The opening sequence, the Berlin car chase, is sadly unmatched in the rest of the movie. The notion that it becomes like a game of tag on a playground, except between lethal spies… that the wall between East and West Berlin is like an end-zone, is the perfect fodder for a thrilling espionage yarn. There’s even a silent moment in which one of our leads all but proclaims: “I crossed the line! Now you can’t get me!”
Most films that peak with their opening scene would be destined for failure. But The Man from U.N.C.L.E. hangs together thanks to several members of the cast, who complete the heavy-lifting that the screenplay does not.
Armie Hammer’s playful performance is the film’s strongest point, quickly overcoming the hurdle of a mournful Russian accent. Henry Cavill outshines his work as Superman, although he’s essentially playing a different sort of superhero this time. In keeping with the Spy Vs. Spy vibe, the leads are almost competing for the audience’s affection. Alicia Vikander’s stunningly reserved turn is nearly an afterthought in the film, as the boys get to have a vast majority of the fun. In the end, it’s Hammer who emerges the victor.
At times, Illya is a broadly comedic character. The success of a performance like Hammer’s rests solely on the likability of the character. We like Illya, so we don’t mind that he’s not necessarily the most nuanced portrait of a Russian spy. We laugh and we forgive.
Another terrific sequence involves Illya and Gaby, as they pretend to be a married couple strolling through the streets of Rome. Solo informs them of pickpockets ahead, which normally wouldn’t phase the dangerous Illya. A spy wouldn’t let himself get mugged. But a civilian certainly would, and they’re supposed to be undercover as civilians. Illya knows they can’t go around clobbering the locals. The sequence plays out in a beautifully endearing manner.
Espionage movie fans will note we’ve had a couple rather successful entries in the genre this year. Former Guy Ritchie producer Matthew Vaughn made the top-notch Kingsman: The Secret Service, before the more recent financial success of Paul Feig’s Spy. Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. falls somewhere in between. More consistent than the hit and miss goofiness of Spy and yet, pales in comparison to the rudely entertaining Kingsman.
On a stylistic level, the sudden use of split-screen in the film’s second half is totally misused. There was a time when Guy Ritchie was considered a visually dynamic filmmaker. Little of that critically acclaimed flair is displayed here. As it’s employed, the recurring split-screen adds nothing to the narrative, except perhaps to hasten dull, dialogue-less sequences. An odd choice considering that many of the exposition scenes feel overly rushed.
Director Guy Ritchie has worked in the pseudo-buddy cop genre before with his somewhat forgettable Sherlock Holmes films. After the early success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie’s filmography takes an unfortunate nosedive.
As a result, it’s difficult to surmise what are Ritchie’s strongest authorial attributes. What does Guy Ritchie do best? The overlapping strength of the director’s most successful works is his clever use of tough guy comedy. Ritchie’s characters are most at home and in their element when exchanging punches or Tarantino-esque, macho quips.
Fittingly, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. works best when the crackling tension between these knucklehead spies overflows and, insults and punches are exchanged.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer, who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine, The Uniter and ShowbizMonkeys.com. You can find Tony on Twitter: @TheTonyHinds