Coming off of the highly enjoyable Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, any sort of spy movie was going to be hard pressed to leave a favorable impression. The Man from UNCLE, fortunately, was up to the task. Like Mission Impossible, UNCLE is based on an old TV show. Instead of modernizing it, something that would have been hard to do with a concept set so completely in the Cold War as The Man from UNCLE, the movie is set in the time that the show aired. The result is a stylish, brisk caper that keeps the audience smiling the whole way through.
Guy Ritchie is a director that in past films was loath to let viewers forget his presence. His finest films, crime movies Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, used a lot of quick dialogue and fast cuts to set an unmistakable visual style that Ritchie has retained in his later films. What felt fresh and enjoyable in Snatch, though, felt a little tired in Sherlock Holmes. His movies remained enjoyable, Swept Away aside, but they didn’t match those first two classics. The Man from UNCLE has Ritchie at his most anonymous. His style is still there, but it is not as omnipresent. It is allowed to drift into the background, with split cuts and fast cuts saved mostly for action scenes. The movie feels not quite so completely his, but the slightly lighter touch makes the touches work all the better.
The Man from UNCLE stars Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, a suave American thief turned spy. He charms his way through the movie affecting to be above it all. Across from him is Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin, his taciturn Russian counterpart. Facing an unthinkable threat, surviving Nazis getting their hands on the capacity to make nuclear bombs, the Soviets and Americans team the two up to stop them. They are joined by the daughter of a kidnapped scientist Gabrielle Teller, whose uncle is one of the Nazis. The three of them go to Italy to get to the bottom of things.
While Illya is clearly the more accomplished fighter, his short fuse occasionally endangers the mission. Solo is unflappable, no matter how flippant his manner seems. The two of them play off of each other wonderfully. With Vikander’s character added to the mix things just sizzle. The opening scene, where Solo extricates Gabby from Soviet controlled East Berlin under the nose of Kuryakin, is just about perfect. It maintains that unmatchable level of energy all the way through the two spies’ simultaneous infiltration of a hidden base, the highlight of the movie. Cavill, who was allowed to show very little personality in Man of Steel, is a delight in this and Hammer makes a great gruff counter point to his smooth charm. The rest of the cast is good as well, especially Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki, who plays one of the villains. The plot twists around, but it never feels cheap or convoluted.
The one flaw is the ending. The action builds and builds, but instead of a bang to cap it all off, it instead just sort of fizzles out. Our heroes feel just a little too good at their jobs and while the world is technically at stake the ending doesn’t really sell that notion. It is a bewildering note for an otherwise excellent film and since it comes so close to the end the movie has no opportunity to recover.
The Man from UNCLE also does that incredibly annoying thing where it sets the whole movie as something of a prequel to the concept. The spy organization UNCLE isn’t mentioned until the closing seconds. While it doesn’t actually hold back the concept, it does make the whole thing feel like set up. It is too bad that the box office results aren’t encouraging, if there is any justice this movie will see a sequel that continues right where this one leaves off. Still, the slightly deflating ending doesn’t change how good the rest of the movie is. I don’t know that I liked it quite as much as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, but it is still loads of fun.