Movie adaptations of ‘60s TV are old hat these days. The last quarter-century has seen dozens of movies made from properties as different as The Flintstones and The Fugitive. And within those, ‘60s TV spy adaptations are arguably the most worn-out genre of all.
Between The Mod Squad, Get Smart, Wild Wild West, The Avengers (the 1998 caper starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman), I Spy, and five Mission: Impossibles, audiences have had nearly every famous property repackaged and retrofitted for modern consumption.
If another is to stand a chance, it needs to differentiate itself from both its predecessor and its modern-day peers. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. knows this — but knowing the perfect thing to do isn’t the same thing as perfectly pulling it off.
Despite the massive popularity of the TV series during its 1964-1968 run, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. never had the staying power of Mission: Impossible or the pop culture integration of Get Smart. As such, Guy Ritchie’s feature-length adventure of two enemy spies forced to team up against a larger foe finds itself stuck between catering to younger audiences raised on instant gratification and to older audiences already familiar with the source material.
The real problem with this is that the movie wastes (nay, spends) no time plotting a comprehensible narrative arc or establishing the lead characters as anything more than one-dimensional. It assumes that older viewers will know the world already and that younger viewers won’t care about anything more than action.
Within five minutes of the movie’s start, the first action sequence is halfway done; within twenty, CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) have gone from shooting each other to being partners. You never get to actually understand who they are, why they dislike each other beyond accents, or why the global stakes matter, and so you’re not as invested as you would be if the movie spent even just five more minutes getting you acclimated to things.
THAT HAVING BEEN SAID… everything else about the The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is amazing fun.
Guy Ritchie, who so smoothly energized late-1800s London in his Sherlock Holmes movies, here tackles the swinging ‘60s. While the decade wasn’t an intentional setting choice in the TV series, Ritchie wisely embraces it for the movie and plays it to its vibrant hilt. The fashion is fab, the colours are cosmic, and the score is sublimely snazzy.
And did I mention how fun The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is? The movie does take a little longer than it should to figure out the exact right tone to maintain — too serious and it loses its fun levity, to goofy and it comes off as an Austin Powers also-ran — but once it finds that sweet equilibrium, the movie exists in a rare state of cool enjoyment that hasn’t existed on film since Confidence and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy.
Henry Cavill, so blank a performer in 2013’s Man of Steel, has a chance to really let loose with his portrayal of Solo, turning him into a suave blend of Sean Connery’s 007 and Sterling Archer. He definitely enjoys embracing the pretty-boy charm here that he so often has tried to downplay in action movies. Think of what Ewan McGregor did with his role in Down with Love, and you’re halfway there.
The only person having even more fun than Cavill is Armie Hammer, who sinks his teeth into the kind of cartoonish Russian accent that doesn’t really exist outside of Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons. So underappreciated in The Social Network and so unnoticed in The Lone Ranger, Hammer does a fantastic job keeping Illya’s cards close to his chest, while making his stone-faced agent impossible to dislike.
Together, Cavill and Hammer are the best on-screen pair of the year. Cavill’s passionate womanizing plays perfectly off of Hammer’s ever-serious stoicism, like an Earthbound Kirk and Spock. The wonderful ways Solo and Kuryakin toy with each other’s distrusts and paranoia is also a real pleasure to watch.
Ultimately, because it doesn’t care enough to establish things adequately and give the characters and their world the introductory time they warrant, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is disappointingly unable to reach the upper echelon of spy movies, as it’s simply unable to get the stakes high enough without fuller investment from the audience. But while it may not end up one of the best movies of the summer, it still goes down as one of the most fun.