This is the summer for 1960s’ spy TV shows becoming films. Whilst Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation had four successful movies over a 19 year span to ensure its success, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. needed things to make itself stand apart—mostly because nobody really remembers the TV show anymore (it ran from 1964 to 1968). It needed a good and competent director with a proven track record for action, a couple of handsome lead actors, a lot of style, and maybe a story that makes sense. Luckily for this production, it had all of those things and more.
The original The Man from U.N.C.L.E. starred Robert Vaughn as super spy Napoleon Solo who works for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement and is assisted by former Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) to defeat the forces that threaten peace all over the world. The series began as a rather straight-up espionage show but as it went on—thanks in no small part to the James Bond franchise—it became a lot more gadgety and science fictional. Guy Ritchie’s feature film version doesn’t so much capture the exact way the TV show was (at all, really), but it does offer the most stylish movie depiction of 1960s spies in a mixture akin to From Russia with Love and In Like Flint.
Casting two enormous dudes in the leads doesn’t hurt either. CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) begins the film—the suave, former thief that he is—in a three-piece suit and in East Germany attempting to get Gaby (Alicia Vikander), a crack mechanic and the daughter of a missing nuclear scientist, over to the West. While this should be pretty easy, they’re being tracked by the KGB’s top agent, the slightly unhinged Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), who has been assigned to stop Solo from this at any costs. The two men quickly become each other’s nemesis, which proves especially tricky when they’re very quickly tasked with partnering by their respective governments in order to get Gaby to Italy to reunite with her uncle (Sylvester Groth), another important scientist who is working for the Vinciguerra family. Said family is embodied by the ultra fashionable Contessa Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) and her husband Alexander (Luca Calvani). Oh, and the Vinciguerras were Nazis, did I mention that?
In order to infiltrate this world of probable-terrorists, Solo has to pose as a master thief capable of getting anything the Contessa desires, and Kuryakin has to pose as Gaby’s humble Russian architect fiance—which neither of them are particularly excited about. Along the way, the two spies try to find evidence of the Vinciguerras manufacturing a nuclear device to hold the world hostage and kickstart the Fourth Reich, which is hard to do since they don’t like each other at all.
The set-up for this movie is pretty much nothing special: two very different spies from different sides have to work together, they don’t get along, there’s a girl, there’s womanizing, there’s humor, there’s action—we’ve seen it all before. But what makes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fire on all cylinders is entirely down to Guy Ritchie at the helm. He has molded this very basic story into something special by making sure the design, the sense of place and time, and especially the music are as spot-on as possible, creating a tone and mood that no script could necessarily create. Ritchie has always been known for picking interesting and highly complementary music for his films, and this film has a Morricone-esque, jazz-flutey score by Daniel Pemberton which is in just about every scene. When it’s not, a selection of European and American tracks from the ’60s play and they all work utterly perfectly. It’s rare that as I’m watching a movie, I find myself excited to go home and download the soundtrack (it’s excellent, by the way).
Ritchie also shows his cheekiness in the direction of certain action sequences, playing up the humor by focusing on different aspects, or what’s going on in the corners of the frame instead of the fight or big chase scene. And, again, these are coupled with music cues that undercut and heighten the action, creating something you wouldn’t expect.
Cavill and Hammer are good in their roles, but the real standouts are Vikander and Debicki who get to shine as the “bait” who knows more than she’s letting on and the femme fatale who’s way more fatale than you’d expect, respectively. Jared Harris plays Solo’s gruff and angry CIA handler and—of course—does a great job, and Hugh Grant plays a mysterious person the spies keep running into in Rome and does his Hugh Grant thing in a highly effective way. And Sylvester Groth, who people might remember as Goebbels in Inglorious Basterds, ends up turning in a reaaaaaaally creepy performance that sort of comes out of nowhere.
So, despite a script that didn’t seem like it’d be that interesting, and having a few other flaws not really worth mentioning, Ritchie and company have turned The Man from U.N.C.L.E. into a highly entertaining, immeasurably stylish, and thoroughly enjoyable movie. And, seriously, you’ll wish you could live in 1964 Rome with that music playing in your head at all times. I wish I was there now.