August 29, 2015


Somewhere around the mid-point of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the film's two spy heroes, an American named Napoleon Solo and a Russian named Illya Kuryakin, find themselves careening through enemy waters at a shipping yard, where military borders have cut them off and they're being pummeled by gun-runners in enemy boats giving chase, until Napoleon is thrown into the water, unbeknownst to his partner. As his counterpart full-speeds ahead, Napoleon casually swims ashore and climbs into a waiting truck, where he turns on the radio, uncovers a picnic basket, and uncorks a bottle of something warm and inviting. He appears to be having a lark, and in the background, to the tune of the romantic, jovial Italian song playing on the radio, we see the speedboat circling and circling and circling. This is one example of the wonderful levity we get in director Guy Ritchie's update of the classic TV show.

Henry Cavill, who did not make much of a lasting impression on me in Man of Steel, seizes command of the screen in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as the cavalier, dashing American spy, a carer criminal whose skills were so good that the CIA decided to waive his criminal charges and convert him from an enemy to an asset. Cavill looks like a wily fox with an ever-present, knowing grin on his face. He's as much of a smart-ass as Chevy Chase was in Fletch, only Cavill's wit never calcifies into contempt. Here's why: once he's given us the show of not caring about his partner's imminent danger (the boat eventually explodes and the Russian spy sinks into the river), Cavill drives that truck into the water and patiently lets it sink. Then he rolls down the window, swims out, and pulls his unconscious friend from the water.

Armie Hammer, playing the tight, intensely serious Russian spy who's always trying to tame his rage, is the perfect foil-companion in this charming, ingratiating buddy-Cold War-comic-thriller. When we first meet Hammer's character, he's trying to kill Cavill, who's been sent to find and retrieve a young woman named Gaby Teller (her father is a renowned Nazi scientist). Pretty soon, as the men find themselves working together on the same mission, they're fighting over what clothes Gaby should wear. (As part of their cover-up, she's pretending to be Hammer's fiance.) Cavill and Hammer bicker over the outfits each has selected for Gaby, and hurl their own fashion insults at each other too: "Your tie doesn't match your suit," Cavill sniffs with superior fashion resolve, and it's as if he's insulted Hammer's mother, or called his manhood into question.

The cajoling between Cavill and Hammer is delightful, and full of clever little double entendres. This is what we should be getting more of in the summer: light-hearted and fun movies that find interesting characters to play against each other. And what's more, director Guy Ritchie manages to work out a legitimately fascinating spy plot as a canvass for his humor. But the relationship between these two men is always at the heart of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and it's their tense, unexpected friendship which endears us to the movie, and which makes the spy-thriller plot somehow less important, even though it is terrifically involving. Ritchie knows how to balance the unfolding Cold War yarn with increasingly more complex character relationships, and he's given two wonderful performers the chance to show us what they're made of, and react to each other in fresh and amusing ways.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may be my favorite big summer movie of 2015, because unlike so many other big summer movies, it knows how to shape a story, how to build suspense, how to use things like pacing and interplay between characters, and good filmmaking techniques, to create something that's actually worth looking at for two hours. There aren't a whole lot of overblown action scenes, and none of them feel exhausting, the way so many summer movies do. Instead, everything about U.N.C.L.E. pops and fizzes just when as it should, and Ritchie stops to savor things like the beauty of Rome, or the finesse of his actors' often striking wardrobe, or their various idiosyncrasies, like the way Armie Hammer's hand trembles when he's desperately trying to control his seething anger, or the way Henry Cavill flashes a smile that's somehow equal parts "screw you," "I told you so," and, finally, an amorous "hello there." In short, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has a lot going on in it, and it's a welcome change for those of us who feel deadened by the monotony of the same old superhero flicks. I don't know where Guy Ritchie's been keeping all this good stuff, because I certainly didn't feel it in his disappointing Sherlock Holmes, but his U.N.C.L.E. is a fantastic entertainment. 

With Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki (both giving fine performances: Vikander as the always game and smart Gaby, and Debicki as a flirtatious, stylish villain Victoria, who just so happens to be in the market for some warheads), and a brief but amusing turn by Hugh Grant as a British intelligence official. Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. 

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