Coming into the screening of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” I didn’t know what to expect. Unlike “Mission Impossible,” I never saw the original TV series in the 1960s and the only recollection I had of a Guy Ritchie film was “Sherlock Holmes.” That was fun, so at least that was my hope for this movie. As it turns out, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” was beyond that.
Henry Cavill (“Man of Steel”) and Armie Hammer (“J. Edgar”) play former adversaries-turned-buddy spies to the hilt. It started out on the rough side. While both have colorful backgrounds and special talents, they’re polar-opposites. Cavill is Napoleon Solo, a former art thief turned CIA agent, charming and cavalier in his ways. Hammer is Illya Kuryakin, a volatile yet steadfast KGB operative.
The American agent and Russian operative, when introduced by their respective handler that they would be working together as partners, make it clear that they’re only doing this for the greater good. Sizing each other up, they try to kill each other on their first day of working together. Their joint mission is to infiltrate a criminal network and dismantle its plan to misuse technology and propagate nuclear weapons, subverting the power balance during the Cold War period.
Their link to the mysterious network is an East German auto-mechanic, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, “Ex-Machina”), the estranged daughter of a vanished Nazi rocket scientist. Gaby reaches out to her uncle, Rudi (Sylvester Groth), at a splashy event under the pretense that she would like to find her father and see him since she’s getting married. Illya is the groom-to-be, pretending to be a Russian architect in love. The uncle is connected to a power-hungry couple in the nuclear venture, Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) and Alexander Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani). Between the two, Victoria makes an impression as the brain behind the operations. Napoleon crashes the event, casts his eyes on the icy villainess, and gains her interest through his sleight of hand tricks and debonair manner.
A gleeful spy game ensues. Playing hide-and-seek and racing against time, there are hidden agenda, deception and double-crosses. Sparks also fly among the trio. The tough and whip-smart Gaby clashes with Illya, although there may be a different kind of spark there. Flamboyant Napoleon and intense Illya butt head over methods and tricks to get the upper hand over their enemy. What makes this slyly funny is the glut of dark, situational humor, including quick-witted banters and deadpan dialogues with hilarious happenings in the background. Irony at its best. All acted well by the principal actors.
Speaking of happenings, it’s got plenty of action. A riotous sequence that opens the film with a bang, involving an elaborate street chase, spin and shootouts down narrow alleys and a narrower escape in the dark of the night.
The movie glossily captures the vibe of the era with flair. Old-fashioned elegance in couture, art and architecture against contrasting color palettes, cool in Berlin and warm in Italy.
The film ends with a boom, an official team formation, and a potential for a sequel. It looks like U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command of Law and Enforcement) is in business. This period espionage is filled with comedic beats, intrigue and style. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is stylish, flashy and fun.
Nathalia Aryani is a film columnist and has a movie blog, The MovieMaven: sdmoviemaven.blogspot.com. Twitter: @the_moviemaven.