Catching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on the tail-end of a Mission: Impossible marathon brings into focus how different Guy Ritchie’s latest feels from both the average spy thriller and today’s typical blockbuster. This isn’t to say there’s anything especially innovative going on here – outside of the ‘60s setting, it’s a pretty standard spy story – but the playful nonchalance of it all suggests that Ritchie’s interested in borrowing more than stylish mod dresses and sunny soundtracks from the decade.
Where the Mission: Impossible movies are carefully-attuned to manoeuvre Tom Cruise into the middle of an elaborate stunt or action setpiece, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. dances past such sequences to focus on banter (and all the fabulous outfits). That’s a smart decision – Ritchie may have cut his teeth as an action director (sorta), but the quick cuts and shiny CGI on display in this film’s brawls and chases betray his disinterest in doing anything different in that department. With such scenes relegated to the margins, what we’re left with is silly, stylish … and sexy.
The silliness is clear right from the casting, which casts a Briton as an American, an American and a Russian and a Swede as a German, resulting in accents that either inconsistent or entirely unconvincing. But who cares, right? Alicia Vikander is, surprisingly, the least interesting of the trio; her star might be on the rise after impressive turns in Testament of Youth and Ex Machina, but outside of some pyjama boogeying she’s pretty well forgettable here.
That’s probably not her fault, though. Ritchie is far less interested in her character – the daughter of a nuclear scientist who also a great mechanic and a spy I guess – than the chemistry between his leading men. Having mastered commercially-palatable, playful homo-eroticism in his Sherlock Holmes joints, he complicates the combative relationship between Henry Cavill’s CIA spy and Arnie Hammer’s KGB agent with an instant, unspoken attraction. (Sidenote: how perfect is Hammer as the surname for a guy playing a post-war Russian? Shame Cavill’s surname wasn’t Sickle.) Oh, sure, Cavill bags his share of ladies, and the film makes a half-hearted attempt to suggest a romance between Hammer and Vikander, but from the moment Cavill can’t bring himself to shoot Hammer – who is, at the time, clutched onto the back of an automobile speeding its way towards the Berlin Wall – the charge between them is unmistakable.
Despite being saddled with a laughable accent and a misplaced backstory, Hammer acquits himself well. But Cavill is the real drawcard here. I’m only familiar with his work from Man of Steel, where his performance was burdened with a semi-mythical weight, as though he was genuinely wrought from steel: despite his super-speed in that film, he seemed ungainly, a child struggling to comprehend his superhuman form. His Napoleon Solo, though, is all grace – an oh-so-sixties gentleman thief pickpocketing and safe-cracking through a web of espionage with an unfailing debonair smile and an impossibly light touch. He’s almost distractingly handsome, making a convincing case that he could carry a franchise that relies on his personality as well as his physique (yes, Snyder, this is a subtweet).
I haven’t spoken about the plot yet because ehhhhh. I mean, you could maybe ping the film for centring its storyline on an intensely politically complex situation – the post-nuclear arms race, a divided Germany, the incipient Cold War, the Nazi legacy – and finding absolutely nothing of substance to say, but that pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the film Ritchie’s making. (There’s an argument to be made that Cavill and Hammer’s flirtation represents the troubled relationship between the United States and Russia – divided but inexorably drawn to one another! – but I’m just not that damn generous.) I will note that, in an era where our technology is pretty well science-fiction, it’s refreshing to see a spy film relying on comparatively quaint gadgets like listening devices and lasers.
Don’t let me oversell this thing; The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t anything special. Despite its playful, lightweight approach it’s neither as fun nor as funny as it could – and should – have been. I kept wishing that it would double down on the double-entendres and double-crosses. But there’s more than enough to like here, and it’s hard not to like a film that slices through the kind of climactic action sequence that would take twenty minutes of a Marvel Studios picture with a breezy, deftly-edited array of split screens that lasts under a minute. These actors might not strap themselves to a plane to justify the price of your ticket, but at least they’re having fun.