If Ethan Hunt and his pals from the Impossible Missions Force ever took a breather and decided to have a night at the movies, I bet they’d like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” So THAT’S how they did it back in the day! Check out those crazy old telephones and those old-timey planes and guns and cars!
Like the “Mission: Impossible” film franchise, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” is based on a Cold War-era television series created in the 1960s — but whereas the Tom Cruise movies are set in the present day, and recent editions have only the most tenuous connection to the original material, Guy Ritchie’s slick, stylish and consistently entertaining take on “U.N.C.L.E.” is an origins story set in the early 1960s.
Ritchie (“Snatch,” the Robert Downey Jr.-starring “Sherlock Holmes” movies) can’t resist the temptation to use some of his trademark dazzling (and sometimes dizzying) camera moves, but “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is also very much of its time. This is a movie that revels in the fashions, the interior designs, the cars, the weapons and the overall vibe of its time period. It’s a great-looking film populated by great-looking people engaged in the usual convoluted espionage shenanigans in which we’re not quite sure until the very end who’s really on the side of good and who’s working for the forces of evil. And we don’t much care, because it’s more about the ride than the plot payoffs.
Kudos to Ritchie and his team of co-writers for not taking the story too seriously. This is as much a comedy as a thriller.
Henry Cavill (your latest “Man of Steel”) gives a performance that wavers between droll and a bit stiff as Napoleon Solo, a dapper, dashing, expert thief who was given a release from prison in exchange for agreeing to work for the CIA on whatever dangerous missions they send his way. (If the Solo character seems a bit Sean Connery-era Bond-esque, that’s no accident. Bond creator Ian Fleming reportedly had some minor involvement in the launching of the “U.N.C.L.E” TV series.)
In a terrifically choreographed early action sequence, Solo barely escapes the clutches of a relentless, giant-sized Russian KGB agent named Illya. (Armie Hammer, relishing every syllable of his oversized Russian accent, gives a wonderful, deadpan funny performance as the stoic Illya, who has more than a few surprises up his sleeve as the story evolves.) Despite Illya’s keen interest in killing Solo and Solo’s keen interest in staying alive, a temporary truce is forged, as their respective bosses temporarily set aside American-Russian conflict so their best agents can team up on a mission to, um, save the world so everybody can get back to the Cold War.
Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”) is Gaby, the daughter of a missing German scientist who could be the key to tracking down and stopping a mysterious group of evildoers bent on creating global havoc and destruction, because that’s pretty much always what mysterious groups of evildoers are all about in movies such as this, right? Gaby is dragged into the intrigue against her will, but it turns out she’s a natural-born secret agent type, and she fits right in with Solo and Illya. It’s almost as if they’re in the nascent stages of a secret organization that will be given an acronym!
Vikander and Hammer have one of the goofiest and funniest hotel room encounters in recent memory. It’s one of those moments when “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” announces itself as equal parts spoof and spy thriller.
Elizabeth Debicki does fine work as the villainous temptress Victoria. Hugh Grant is great fun in a too-brief role as Waverly, the classic higher-up who might be the only one in the movie who understands the complexities of the mission, and the true loyalties of all the players. Jared Harris, who was Lane Pryce on “Mad Men” and Professor Moriarty in Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows,” is excellent as Solo’s manipulative boss at the CIA.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” plays like a lower key, vintage edition of a “Mission: Impossible” movie. It’s a good movie with a great look.