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Film Review | The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

This glitzy Guy Ritchie caper may be yet another reboot, but it's also yet another entertaining spy-movie entry in a year that has been something of an embarrassment of riches for the genre

31 August 2015, 8:30am
Roma Citta’ (Super) Spiata: The Men and Girl from U.N.C.L.E. have a nonchalant drink after a world saving job well done
Roma Citta’ (Super) Spiata: The Men and Girl from U.N.C.L.E. have a nonchalant drink after a world saving job well done
by Marco Attard

This year has been surprisingly kind for lovers of the spy film genre. Earlier this year we've had the surprisingly entertaining Kingsman, last month gave us the excellent Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and soon enough we’ll be enjoying the latest chapter in the current Bond saga, Spectre. But before that the cinema gods decided to bring back The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a somewhat obscure TV series from the 1960s co-created by no other than the man behind James Bond, Ian Fleming.

Does this mean audiences are realising (or being made to realise) that stories of relatively ordinary individuals using wits and brawn to defeat near-impossible odds are more thrilling than any number of thinly-veiled God metaphors causing massive damage to densely populated urban areas? Can this substitute critic dare to dream?

Anyway, the era is the swinging 60s and the situation is potentially so dire the United States and Russia are forced to collaborate – a criminal organisation has gotten its grubby hands on a means to easily manufacture nuclear weapons. Thus, as spy movie logic dictates, only a pair of secret agents from the opposing sides of the Iron Curtain can stop them.

From the CIA is Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), an ex-thief with a penchant for sharp suits, while Russia sends Ilya Kuryakin (Arnie Hammer), a KGB prodigy with barely concealed anger issues. Shockingly enough (not really) the duo clashes immediately, but Solo and Kuryakin have to put aside their differences if they are to recover ‘Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist’ (Christian Berkel).

The scientist's estranged daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander) joins the team, and soon enough the action moves to Rome, where criminal mastermind Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) and her Nazi sympathiser cronies plot world domination. As one does on a quiet Tuesday afternoon.

Yes, the above amounts to little more a wafer-thin excuse for some superspy action, and with it come all prerequisite plot beats. There’s a chase scene right in the beginning, a bit involving a swish party, another where the protagonists stealthily sneak through a heavily-fortified facility, a subsequent failure of aforementioned sneaking through heavily-fortified facility leading to all hell breaking loose, and a final assault on the villains’ island headquarters.

Characters bicker and fail to work together, there’s a double cross twisting neatly into a triple cross, and everything works out for the best in the end. Guy Ritchie directs the action with style and a breezy pace, and a penchant for slick expository sequences ensures audience members unfamiliar with the spy genre’s tropes will never get too lost – a plot summary might sound complicated, but in actual fact The Man from U.N.C.L.E. makes Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation look like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Further selling the action is a cast that’s clearly having fun with its roles. Cavill piles on the charm as Solo, and as such is barely recognisable from the dour Superman seen in Man of Steel. Hammer is given less to do as Kuryakin, even if he’s mercifully spared the humiliation of using an unconvincing Russian accent.

However it’s the women who steal the show – Vikander clearly has a whale of a time as the surprisingly capable Gaby (all while clad in era-appropriate brightly patterned mini-dresses and mod glasses), as does Debicki as the villain of the piece. In a plus to The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s favour there’s some pleasing gender equality, considering it makes part of a genre with a more than deserved reputation for being unkind (to put it mildly) to female characters. 

At the end of the day The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is little more than a refreshing cocktail of a movie, one best served on a balmy summer evening. It’s all too frothy and has very little of actual substance, but does have some very tasty garnishes – including a tremendous soundtrack featuring such greats as Roberta Flack, Luigi Tenco, Nina Simone and Tom Zé – doesn’t overstay its welcome and, well, is rather tasty. Sometimes that's all that one really wants, right?

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