Stylish Spy Caper is a Worthy Successor to the TV Series

DIRECTOR:  Guy Ritchie/2015

manfromuncleposterlargeThere have been countless film adaptations of classic television shows, most of them failures (Mod Squad, The Beverly Hillbillies, McHale’s Navy), with a precious few successes (The Addams Family, Get Smart, Mission: Impossible). These movies work best when they respect the source material rather than mocking it, camping it up or ripping it from its context. It would have been easy for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to fall into one of these traps, and yet it nimbly avoids them and comes out looking fine. Director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) has made a sleek, quick-witted action movie, with an eye toward sequels.

The television series, first airing in 1964, was built on the then-radical notion that American and Soviet secret agents could partner and work for an international agency (U.N.C.L.E.) in counter-espionage and law enforcement. When the “Red Scare” was still at its peak, David McCallum was playing the Soviet agent, Illya Kuryakin, as a suave hero alongside Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), the unflappable American. The movie has cast two more physically imposing actors in those roles: Armie Hammer as Kuryakin and Henry Cavill as Solo. These men are practically monuments: Cavill offers broad shoulders and chiseled features in designers suits. There’s a reason that he’s the current cinematic Man of Steel, and it’s largely because of his look. Hammer is a towering blonde with an overcast expression, best known for playing the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Neither actor has yet been a proven quantity. Cavill received mixed reviews for his melancholy Superman, and Hammer starred, unfortunately, in The Lone Ranger (yet another example of a disappointing TV-to-film adaptation). Here, in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., both actors comport themselves well and may finally gain greater career traction.

manfromuncle3The plot of this movie is standard spy stuff. An ex-Nazi scientist has been developing a nuclear bomb which will be used by bad guys to bring the world to its knees. Stopping the bomb from falling into the wrong hands and acquiring the technology used to develop it is so important that the U.S. And the Soviet Union are cooperating – at least temporarily – assigning their crack agents to the job.

Solo, the American, is a fashion conscious ladies man with the smooth, clipped delivery one hears in old watch or cigarette commercials.

He is utterly without self-doubt and of questionable morals – having only gotten into the spy game to escape his prison sentence for art theft. Kuryakin, “the Red Peril” as Solo calls him, is more emotionally complex: a bit idealistic, stinging with shame over his father having been sent to a gulag, and possessing a problematic temper. Every now and then, when the right buttons are pushed, Kuryakin goes Hulk.

Alicia Vikander, a relative newcomer who attained instant prestige with this year’s Ex Machina, is here as well; as the daughter of the Nazi scientist, escaping East Germany to help the agents in their mission. There is a strong supporting cast, too, but Elizabeth Debicki rises above the rest as an arch, icy blonde villainess. This movie is long on visual style, and while a movie like Austin Powers sends up the Mod era, Vikander and Debicki look fantastic in the haute couture of the time. The movie is slyly self aware of how central fashion is to its tone, and contains a couple of enjoyable spats between the two spies on appropriate attire.

manfromuncle2It’s not just the clothes that make the man, though, or this movie. The jazzy score, the split screen effects and the Bond-like wit all evoke the spy narratives of the 60s. The violence is relatively bloodless, sex is treated casually but not shown, and there are quips aplenty. All of this makes the one major misstep in the movie stand out all the more. The villains are all ex-Nazis or Nazi sympathizers, and Nazis have certainly had a long career as movie baddies. But in a movie that is generally light in tone, it’s a delicate matter utilizing the compressed evil that Nazis symbolize without evoking too vividly what the Nazis actually did. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. makes the mistake of letting a Nazi doctor wax too rhapsodic about the pleasures of medical experimentation, complete with photographs. We know, unfortunately, how rooted in reality this is, and there is no way to fit it comfortably into a caper movie. The collision of movie fiction and real life left me a bit queasy, if only briefly.

Working with his own screenplay, Ritchie has created a movie that is fun, easy-on-the-eyes action and humor. The plot itself is a derivative trifle, but it’s simply the delivery system for likable, attractive characters and lots and lots of style. You could do a lot worse than that for a summer movie.