Light on its feet, utterly inconsequential, and quite often a pleasure to look at and listen to, “The Man From UNCLE” is Guy Ritchie's big-screen reboot of the classic '60s spy show. Showcasing the charms of Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Alicia Vikander, it is a piffle, a fetish piece for anyone who loves the pop side of the '60s, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is not a non-stop action movie, though, and I suspect that on the heels of “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” it's going to be treated more roughly than it deserves.
Ritchie has been working with writer/producer Lionel Wigram since “Sherlock Holmes,” and they seem to have settled into a pretty happy system of doing things. They share screenplay credit on this one, with the story attributed to Jeff Kleeman & David C. Wilson as well as Wigram and Ritchie, and it's a pretty simple, straightforward thing. After extracting Gaby (Vikander) from East Germany, Napoleon Solo (Cavill) finds himself pressed into escorting Gaby to find her long lost father and, more importantly, the nuclear secrets he possesses. In order to do this, though, Napoleon is teamed up with a huge, borderline psycho Russian secret agent named Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) since both superpowers have an interest in keeping these nuclear secrets out of the hands of terrorists.
The television series, created by Norman Felton and Ian Fleming, was developed by Sam Rolfe. It was originally supposed to focus primarily on the character of Napoleon Solo, Fleming's contribution to the show, but very quickly, David McCallum's characterization of Illya got him bumped up to an equal co-starring role, and it became much more of a buddy show. In the film, Solo has a new backstory, having been a war profiteer in the days after WWII before being captured and pressed into service by the Americans. He's essentially working off his sentence under the supervision of his handler Sanders (Jared Harris), and Illya comes to the mission with his own baggage. Both of them believe at first that they have been assigned to protect Gaby, but she quickly makes it clear that she is capable of protecting herself, and may well have an agenda that no one else knows about.
Since breaking through in “The Social Network,” Hammer has seemed to confuse casting directors. I'm still baffled by what they were chasing with “The Lone Ranger,” and I think his energy was at odds with whatever it was that Johnny Depp was doing as Tonto. Here, though, they make great use of his size, and he has fun playing this giant Russian with a hair trigger temper. He and Vikander have a fun chemistry, and it's like watching a giant dog who shares a house with a tiny kitten, with the kitten clearly calling the shots. Henry Cavill also shines here in a way we haven't really seen from him before. He has a deadpan droll take on everything, like Solo refuses to let himself be rattled by anything he sees or hears.
The film is fairly low-tech, and that's part of what I liked about it. There's also a wicked sense of humor that plays out in some great visual gags and some really fun takes on how these films usually handle things. In the end, what matters most is the chemistry between Cavill and Hammer and Vikander, though, and that's where the movie succeeds. All three of these people seem to have found the exact right tone in which to play this material. And the score… oh, man, Daniel Pemberton's score is a big bag of retro cool, as light on its feet as the movie itself. Even the staging of things is clever, like a major action sequence that plays out mainly in the background of a very sedate and calm shot of one of the characters. It feels like Ritchie isn't trying too hard here, but instead simply relaxed into the era and the attitudes in all the right ways.
If you have a fondness for the genre and a particular love of '60s pop, “The Man From UNCLE” is the summer's big fizzy drink, all bubbles, and while it may be gone the moment you walk out of the theater, the smile it puts on your face will likely linger.
“The Man From UNCLE” opens Friday.