Having quaffed a drink laced with something that will shortly knock him cold, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) does the sensible thing. He gathers some throw-pillows and carefully places first them, and then himself, upon the nearest sofa. Once, he explains to the person responsible for slipping him the mickey, he hit his head during the fall after imbibing something similar, and hurt himself rather badly. That, in a nutshell, is the dominant tone of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., based mostly on the 1960s television show of the same name, with a dash of one from a little later tossed in just for fun. Fun, it should be noted, is the point of this particular exercise.
This is the origin story that the series never revealed, and a suitably piquant one it is. Set in the Cold War year of 1963, Solo is sent behind the Iron Curtain to East Berlin. His mission, bring Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) the comely daughter of a Nazi scientist to the west, there to help the CIA find her father. The father, of course, has the fate of the world in his head, and, perhaps, in the bomb he is building for a fanatical band of die-hard Nazis, the kind that aren’t going to let a little thing like a crushing defeat in World War II put a damper on their plans for world domination.
Solo, devastatingly handsome, preternaturally suave, and sublimely unruffled in any situation, succeeds, but with a hitch in the form of a gigantic blond Russian who does not take defeat well. The blonde is, of course, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), the crack KGB agent who will shortly be paired with his new sworn enemy in an attempt to save the world from the supervillains. It’s not love at first sight. And this adds just the right note to the rest of the proceedings. Whether they are bickering about the finer points of haute couture, or how best to steal the secret plans (on a proto-computer disk), or dashing about in hot pursuit of each other or a third party, there is a singular pleasure in watching the competition that can never be more than a tie.
What ensues is the classic 60s-style espionage thriller. A spoof with a light touch, an action film with a sleek sensibility, and a complicated plot that allows for chases, seductions, and a great deal of one-upsmanship. The mood is arch, with the beehive hairdos sported by the icy villainess-in-chief (Elizabeth Debicki) are poofed just a bit more than reality would allow, the stronghold of evil is a veritable fortress of doom, and our two heroes are as close to perfect as makes them interesting, with a few flaws thrown in to make them interesting and, of course, to eventually bond.
Directed by Guy Ritchie, the film is less bombastic than his previous outings, but with no less a sense of kinetic electricity, dampened only here and there with downshift of tone
from which it quickly recovers. For all the kinetic activity, some of the best moments are the ones rich in mordant humor, where, for example, the mayhem occurs in the background as one or both of our agents ponder the situation at hand, or the stoic Russian is coerced into dancing with a drunken Gaby while pretending to be her fiancé.
There are a few changes from the series. This Solo is high-class thief turned reluctant spy in order to get out of jail (shades of It Takes A Thief); this Illya is less cerebral with a few anger-management issues. By not tracking slavishly to the series, a world of possibilities opens up, and Ritchie and company exploit them with panache. So do the leads. Cavill with his velvet voice and eyes that mock, but with a boyish twinkle is the perfect foil, and vice versa, for Hammer, who has found a thousand ways to register a look of offended disapproval mixed with general bemusement at the antics of Solo in particular, and the West in general.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E is a lightweight entertainment, to be sure, but one that seeks nothing more than to charm and delight its audience. And it does.