Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a sparkling big-screen adaptation of the 1960s’ spy show, is a super dry espionage spectacle. Its director is at his best when he’s playing with wide-frame action (shown off wonderfully in his Robert Downey Jr-starring Sherlock Holmes adaptations), intricately convoluted plotting (in Holmes and his scrappy British gangster pictures), and long winding scenes of circular dialogue that simply enjoys the pleasures of hearing pretty people speak barbed banter. It all comes together to make an U.N.C.L.E. oozing charisma out of each impeccably designed, handsomely photographed shot. It’s slight and knows it, content simply to groove on a 60’s spy vibe, like Le Carré lite, or Diet Fleming. Other than some computer-assisted camera swopping and gliding, it’d be pretty much the same thing if it were the long-lost hippest spy movie of 1963. (Well, second best. It’s no From Russia With Love.)
Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram have cooked up a capering jaunt through Cold War tensions, used for little more than their vintage analog throwback appeal. They find a swaggering American spy, an ex-thief turned master of misdirection named Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), clashing with a Russian spy, a powerful Soviet bruiser named Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). The two antagonistic national forces are forced to work together when British intelligence (personified by Jared Harris, then Hugh Grant) uncovers word that a horrible nuclear MacGuffin is in the hands of a dastardly aristocratic European couple (Elizabeth Debicki and Luca Calvani). The device will give whoever controls it power over the entire globe. That’s bad enough to get the Americans and Russians on the same page.
The following espionage and heist tomfoolery allows plenty of room for Cavill and Hammer to create a prickly competition. They never work together, exactly. It’s more like parallel missions reluctantly leaning on the other when things get diciest. Between them is a beautiful German woman (Alicia Vikander), a pawn smuggled out from behind the Berlin Wall in order to get the agents closer to her ex-Nazi uncle (Sylvester Groth), a key to finding the whatchamacallit and saving the world. She’s more charming than both men put together, and more than eager to stand up for herself and provide advice as to how the mission could be better executed. What starts as a standard damsel role wrests control over the proceedings before falling back into victimhood for the slam-bang action-based ending. Ritchie finds satisfyingly peculiar ways to show off the film’s adventure, often in the background, like my favorite moment, a boat chase that happens almost entirely off screen while a character takes a breather, dryly regarding the chaos from the vantage point of his impromptu picnic.
Bursting with star charisma, the lead trio of capable undercover agents flirtatiously needles each other about malfunctioning gadgets, critiques wardrobe choices, and withholds key information from one another. In true spy movie fashion, they all have their secret motives. But with so much buried intent in the characters’ behaviors, the film’s pleasures are nonetheless all surface. Joanna Johnston’s costumes are perfectly tailored. Daniel Pemberton's score is swinging sixties' frothiness. John Mathieson’s cinematography has an unnatural CGI flow, but a vintage crispness to its symmetries, eventually bursting forth with zippy split-screens instead of crosscutting when the action reaches its zenith. It’s all about showcasing handsome people in beautiful clothing, luxuriating in trading innuendoes and teasing insults, and enacting clockwork double-crosses with zigzagging spycraft. It’s fizzy and fine, an undemanding aesthetic delight.