‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ Is Better Than Bond, Bourne, Or ‘Mission Impossible’

I owe Guy Ritchie a gift basket after The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a big studio action movie that for once feels like a genre I like rather than just a good version of something I don’t. You see, and sorry if I lose you here, but I hate Bourne movies. They always feel like some Tom Clancy freak inventing doomsday scenarios for his GI Joes while CNN drones in the background. Intense, but joyless, with action that exhausts more than it excites. Perhaps by extension, I haven’t liked a Bond movie since Casino Royale.

Somewhere along the line, big studio action movies became more about intense stares and grunting than wry smirks and panache (Casino Royale even falls into this category, though I thought it was interesting for the way it depicted James Bond as the psychopath he’d probably be if he really did all those things). Do we really want to see some 40-something actor pretend to be Tony Jaa through the magic of creative framing and fast editing?

By contrast, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a swinging, sexy movie about Cold War spycraft starring immaculately costumed specimens of raw sexuality (Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Armie Hammer). It’s breezy without being half-assed, and above all, it’s fun. Hot people, sexy music, exotic vistas, delicious one-liners – it’s everything I always wanted from Bond movies but never got.

Henry Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, a post-WWII antiquities smuggler recruited by the CIA. “Debonaire art smuggler” and “Superman” being two of the only roles that could believably be portrayed by a man as perfectly formed as Henry Cavill. That hair, that chin — he’s like a Greek God from a homoerotic cartoon. 

His female counterpart is Alicia Vikander, a Swede with impossibly delicate nostrils who earlier this summer played an eccentric billionaire’s fantasy sex robot in Ex Machina and was all-too perfect for the part. Here, Vikander plays an East German mechanic whose former Nazi rocket scientist father may be helping a shadowy cabal of aristocratic fascists develop a nuclear bomb. That’s why Solo has to team up with his Soviet counterpart, a KGB Sambo champ played by Armie Hammer, whose Russian accent is less distracting than you’d think from a Winklevoss. Cavill, Hammer and Vikander join forces to defeat fascism, all while engaging in constant one-upmanship and infiltrating the most sumptuous of aristocratic soireés, chateaus, gran prixes, menage a trois and mis en places (pardon my French).

Guy Ritchie’s curious career trajectory has seen him go from guy-frequently-accused-of-ripping-off-Tarantino, to guy married to Madonna, to guy who directs slick, stylish (if not especially faithful) adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. Obviously, this latest gig resurrecting a TV show I never saw has most in common with Sherlock Holmes, but U.N.C.L.E. still feels like a step forward. Freed of the Sherlock movies’ Byzantine, almost pathological plot twists, Ritchie has more breathing room to stretch his style muscles, to really gild and garnish and embroider, which may have always been his foremost skill.

“You think I’m all style? Please, you people haven’t seen style.”

Not having to set up and exposit relentless plot twists just leaves more time for sex, Louis Prima songs, and awesome one-liners. Like when Cavill tells Hammer he has to lose a fight to keep from blowing his cover (“Be sure to take it like a pussy”) or when Hammer has to explain why he put a guy in the hospital (“He had soft bones”). It’s just so refreshing to see a stylish action movie that doesn’t grump around like its hare-brained water rights plot is the most important thing in the world (Quantum of Solace) or have to resort to winking and homage in order to have fun (Kingsmen).

Guy Ritchie could probably make the Holocaust seem like a swingin’ sexy good time, but he’s especially well suited to a story about decadent glamour and spycraft. Costumes! Gear! Heist montages! Quips!

Additionally, this may be the first franchise-teaser-disguised-as-movie that actually functions like it’s supposed to, where you actually leave wanting to see more instead of feeling like you’re owed a refund. I didn’t know what “U.N.C.L.E.” stood for until the credits rolled (I didn’t look it up, and only knew that it’s annoying to type), and unlike, say “The Fantastic Four,” which attempted to pull exactly the same stunt, the answer isn’t so stupidly obvious that it makes the entire preceding movie seem unnecessary and patronizing. (Like, really, you needed 80 minutes to explain why they’re called “fantastic?”).

Man From U.N.C.L.E. feels more like Lethal Weapon meets Archer than Mission Impossible or Bourne. It proves that you can still make a finely-crafted, compelling spy movie that isn’t a drag. It’s more about wit and sex than about violence (which these movies never show or treat in a real way anyway) or national security (zzzzz).

Also, we don’t have to watch some whiny, loner protagonist struggle with his emotional baggage or God forbid, amnesia. Instead we get a suave ladies man with the kind of chin I imagine God must have. So much better. Dear studios: more of this, please.

Grade: A-

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.