We’ve never been short on updating the cult and the classic in 1960s TV/film for a new, contemporary audience. However, only recently have those updates gained some form of legitimacy. In this age of modernising entertainment from the past, Guy Ritchie‘s explosively slick take on the seminal spy-fi TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. stands as one of the least complicated, least tasteless takes on a cult property in a modern setting, and is quite a lot of fun too.
Seminal not just for its entertainment factor but for its rendition of the then-dangerously real Cold War, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was everything a kid could wish for in the 1960s. Here, Ritchie takes everything that was so wonderfully 60s about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and modernizes it to the point where the world The Man from U.N.C.L.E. takes place in is remarkably artificial. This is the 1960s through the ultimate pair of rose-tinted glasses, and the film itself is pretty much nothing but sheer slick. There isn’t a step or stride that either Henry Cavill or Armie Hammer take that isn’t blitzed in style. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is completely lacking in substance and is nothing but style. And you know what? It’s all the better for it!
The plot itself is either lazily taken from any number of retro spy shows or a perfect encapsulation of the 60s, involving our heroes, an American and a Russian having to team up alongside the daughter of a disappeared scientist who is involved in a criminal organisation comprised of former Nazis that are busily producing an atom bomb that could destroy the world. And that’s about it. Like I said, style over substance.
You could probably watch a dozen or so classic episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that follow the exact same plot, but that doesn’t detract from how wickedly cool this film can be. Cavill and Hammer spend much of the film showing audiences they arguably have a more entertaining chemistry than Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, who starred in Ritchie’s other take on cult fiction favourites. However, purists of the original show may not find that much to love in the characters here, as Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is now an ex-art thief who gets captured by the CIA and moulded into their top agent in exchange for a prison sentence. Similarly, KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) is far less soft than he was in the original series, and now comes with a disturbed past, a rather short temper, a a preference for extreme violence.
Fortunately, these slight recreations of the characters are pulled off rather well, and Cavill and Hammer actually exude a bit more menace and muscle than Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the original Solo and Kuryakin respectively. One major balls-up however is Hugh Grant as U.N.C.L.E. head Alexander Waverly. He has none of the majestic pomp that Leo G. Carroll exuded in the original series. Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki play a fine pair of smoky femme fatales, but given the film’s abundance in flair, they’re not a lot more than smoky.
Perhaps the biggest misfire of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is that the majority of the film doesn’t include any classic U.N.C.L.E. shenangians at all. It’s only at the film’s conclusion that Waverly informs Solo and Kyruakin that they’re going to be sticking together for the foreseeable future under a new codename – the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Oh God, I love you 1960s, you had the best acronyms! Despite this rather obvious set-up for a sequel (which I’d actually look forward to if one ever gets going), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has enough thrills and spills to delight your inner spy. Unpretentious and undeniably cool, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Guy Ritchie are a perfect match for some silly yet zealous popcorn fun.