With Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant. Written by Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity. 116 minutes.
There have been many bad movies made from TV shows, just as there have been bad movies made from books, Broadway shows, and a variety of other sources. There have also been television shows–good and bad–based on movies. It’s not the source that matters so much as what the people creating the new work do with the material.
In the case of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., it’s a movie based on a 1960s television show that was itself inspired by the James Bond movies which, of course, were based on Ian Fleming’s novels. So there are a lot of fingerprints on it. As it turns out, director Guy Ritchie (and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram) got it exactly right, introducing the characters to moviegoers who may have never heard of them while not insulting the memories of those who have.
They do this in two ways. First, they set the story in the same era as the show, the early to mid-1960s. Not only is the Cold War going on, but there’s all sorts of opportunities to show off “mod” styles and period music. Unlike “Mission: Impossible,” this is a ‘60s style spy thriller that felt no need to update itself for modern audiences. Second, they make the film an “origin” story, showing how the principal characters meet and work on their first assignment together. Unlike the recent “Fantastic Four,” this origin story leaves you eager to see the next installment.
For those of you just coming in, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is a CIA agent who looks best in a tuxedo, even when engaging in spycraft. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is the soulful KGB agent. Both of them have complicated pasts, and in their recent encounter they nearly killed each other. Now they have to join forces to prevent an Italian industrialist (Elizabeth Debicki) from providing a mysterious criminal syndicate the means to build atomic weapons. It’s so 1960s.
Along the way, the colorful locations mix with the bantering between Solo and Kurayakin, both of whom prefer to work alone. Along for the ride is Gaby (Alicia Vikander), whom Solo has helped escape from East Berlin because her uncle is connected to Victoria, and her father, who has vanished, was working on the atomic missile project. Her cover story is that she’s accompanying her fiancé Kuryakin, a supposedly gifted architect.
Cavill and Hammer don’t try to impersonate the original actors, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, but they get the attitude right. Modeled on James Bond, Cavill’s Solo is polished and suave, having no trouble attracting female company. Hammer’s Kuryakin is more withdrawn, with a smoldering anger just beneath the surface, making him seem more in need of attention. Then there’s Hugh Grant as Mr. Waverly, who will become the boss of the new operation they are in the midst of forming.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a slick and entertaining reimagining of a ‘60s spy film, with thrills, action, and some arch comic relief. What the oldtimers will want for the next film is the reintroduction of the theme music and their New York headquarters behind the tailor shop. And, of course, the revelation that the unnamed criminal syndicate is really T.H.R.U.S.H.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.