Movie review: A new angle on ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’

Ed Symkus More Content Now
Gaby (Alicia Vikander), Ilya (Armie Hammer), and Napoleon (Henry Cavill) find a quiet moment in Italy.

British director Guy Ritchie had some trouble reaching mainstream American audiences with his early films. His eccentric (and underrated) gangster movies “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch,” and “RocknRolla” did well here on the art house scene, but it took his switch to the Hollywoodized big budget pair of Sherlock Holmes films, with snazzy, winking performances by Robert Downey for Ritchie to really score at the general box office.

With his adaptation of the hip, hit 1960s TV series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” Ritchie has, style-wise, creatively mixed together the good parts of what made his previous films tick. The resulting movie comes across as very slick, but it maintains a kind of old-fashioned feeling.

The best decision he and his co-writer (and co-producer) Lionel Wigram made was to keep it as a period piece. With its story set in 1963, it carries the flavor of the show, which ran from 1964-’68, and was American TV’s answer to England’s James Bond movies (Trivia nuts will appreciate the fact that Ian Fleming was hired as a consultant during the show’s development.). It was a Cold War series, and this is a Cold War movie. The coolest thing about the show, beyond the character names Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, was that they were an American agent and a Russian agent working together against all sorts of bad guys.

And while that bit of business was never explained on TV, the choice to take care of it here was the second best decision made by Ritchie and Wigram. Their “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is an origin story. Solo (Henry Cavill), with some jail time behind him for being too much trouble, is now one of the most revered agents in the C.I.A. Kuryakin, who spent some time in a Russian gulag, is now the best that the KGB has got. When these two guys first meet, not only are they on different sides, they also hate each other.

Also in the story are Gaby (Alicia Vikander), a damsel (and her scientist father) in distress; a nuclear warhead that has gone missing; some latter-day Nazis, including a venomous snake of a woman named Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki); and the fact that, you know, the world needs saving. The script predictably has Solo and Kuryakin initially displaying antagonism toward each other (the American refers to the Russian as “Red Peril”; the Russian calls the American “Cowboy”), though that eventually turns into a kind of begrudging respect, even though both of them would rather work the case alone. And it smoothly has them become partners instead of enemies, especially when they start saving each other’s tails.

We get the kinds of things we’ve come to expect from spy movies here: fistfights, car chases (there’s one that plays out as an elegant ballet on a cramped street), and plenty of gunfire. But it’s great that the tone and setting of the piece has the characters using maps instead of GPS systems, and that it’s actually JFK on a TV screen spouting out against Communism, instead of some fictional contemporary politician doing it.

Another solid idea here was to make both main women very strong characters; Gaby isn’t in as much distress as she first appears (and she’s a darn good auto mechanic), and Victoria is someone you do not want to mess with. There are a couple of funny moments (a running gag about faulty torture equipment stands out), astute listeners will catch a brief quote from the TV show’s theme song as one of our heroes is twisting a radio dial, and there’s all sorts of treachery being committed, to the point where you sometimes don’t know who is on which side.

But all is sorted out amidst a totally groovy soundtrack – the film opens with Roberta Flack’s sensual 1969 recording of “Compared to What” – some wild visual action that’s presented in a barrage of split screen work, and the introduction of a fellow named Commander Waverly (Hugh Grant), who makes me question the title of the movie as well as the TV show. I always wondered why it wasn’t called “The MEN from U.N.C.L.E.” The Ritchie-Wigram script more than hints that it’s really Waverly who is the MAN from U.N.C.L.E.


Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram; directed by Guy Ritchie

With Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant

Rated PG-13

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.