With boxy German cars and stark, grey walls topped with barbed wire, the first 15 seconds of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” thrusts viewers directly into 1960s Berlin, the Cold War era, as Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) crosses from West to East.
The opening images of the film tease with the aesthetic of the time, complete with grainy, hand-held images. But this spy thriller never fully embraces ‘60s kitsch: it chooses instead to transpose the imagery onto a glossy Hollywood star vehicle, with the occasional zoom, rainbow sun flare or split-screen shot to keep the audience visually in the time period.
The film hits a running start as Solo attempts to escape East Berlin with Gaby (Alicia Vikander), a mechanic whose estranged father, a former Nazi scientist, holds the key to a dangerous nuclear secret. As Solo makes his getaway, he is hounded by Kuryakin in their first meeting and the setup to their rivalry. The opening chase in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is precision itself: Director Guy Ritchie’s frenetic images are in lock step with the movie's excellent theme music; the sequence has wonderful momentum as the conflict escalates. The film gives the impression that both agents are just a little too good for their own good, creating playful dynamic between the characters before they actually meet. The lumbering Hammer’s attempt to physically incapacitate Solo and Gaby’s moving car is played straight, and is hilarious for it.
The movie’s plot is nothing terribly original for the era it spoofs: The American and Soviet governments must cooperate to keep international criminals from creating and selling a nuclear weapon. The real meat of the film is the relationship between the agents of these respective countries. Cavill, who was nearly cast as the last James Bond, plays a parody of the type here: the American Napoleon Solo, a roguish ex-thief-turned-spy who teams up with the strong but silent Russian agent Illya Kuryakin, played by the ever-compelling Armie Hammer.
There are a number of good laughs in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and even more surprisingly, the film takes its time to set up the character relationships, which give the jokes some room to breathe outside the action. The director knows how to imbue snide one-upmanship with some heart. Vikander is most often cast in the straight-man role, but all three of the leads in this movie get to display range. Hugh Grant shows up halfway through the film and would threaten to be underused if he did not deliver one of the funniest lines of the film.
However, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is not a perfect film by any stretch. The driving plot is rather tepid, as are the villains of the piece. The final chase sequence, featuring Cavil in an ATV, is also rather dull and jerky, particularly when compared the fluid tension of the opening scene. Rather than the action, it is the character dynamic that carries the film through the third act.
Despite some obvious shortcomings, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a sleek and funny spy film. All the actors are on point, especially Cavill. The film also commits to tense, smaller scale scenes. The low-key action is refreshing after a summer filled with large set pieces and CG-heavy spectacles. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” takes viewers back to a slightly more simple time in action filmmaking.
Now if only they would explain what U.N.C.L.E. stands for.
Nathan Reynolds is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DailyLobo.
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