The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a stylish, suave and fast-paced spy thriller from director Guy Ritchie. Based on the '60s TV series of the same name, it has all the energy and action of a Bond movie, but with a lighter touch and far more laughs.
Set in the swinging '60s, U.N.C.L.E. stars Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, an ex-art thief now working for the CIA. He's a playboy with a taste for the finer things in life and a quip for every situation, but he's also the best spy in the business.
His first assignment is to guide Gaby (Alicia Vikander) out of East Germany. Gaby has more going on than you might expect at first glance — she's a mechanic and the daughter of an infamous Nazi physicist. The two team up with Illya (Armie Hammer), an equally brilliant Russian spy with a natural aversion to Solo's cavalier attitude, and the three become involved in a plot where — stop me if you've heard this one before — the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Humor keeps U.N.C.L.E. running smoothly
U.N.C.L.E.'s plot is deliberately twisty and slightly absurd, a throwback to the spy classics it so clearly draws inspiration from. The entire affair manages to stay just this side of parody, however, with breakneck pacing and perfectly-tuned action sequences. In one early scene, a car chase through East Germany turns into a multi-stage race with multiple spies evading police. There's another humdinger of a sequence involving a boat, a mack truck and a reluctant Solo giving up a fine (stolen) lunch in order to help Illya out with all the explosions and bad guys running amok.
Humor also keeps U.N.C.L.E. running smoothly. The tension between Solo and Illya underscores most of its scenes and provides a sort of cute commentary on US-Russian relations at the time. They fight about ladies' fashion. They try to one-up one another over who has the coolest spy toys. They even get feisty about Gaby, who is generally exasperated about the two doofuses trying to protect her when she's probably the most capable person in the movie. There's a whiff of screwball comedy in the writing, and the actors all have incredible chemistry.
That goes doubly for Vikander and Hammer, whose characters have a kind-of, sort-of romance going on that begins in one of the movie's most fun, spontaneous scenes. Under the cover that the couple is engaged, they sit in their hotel room at night. Illya just wants a quiet night to play chess (against himself). Gaby gets drunk and decides to give him an impromptu dance lesson to Solomon Burke's "Cry To Me" that ends up in an unexpected (at least for Illya) wrestling match. It's funny, sexy, genuinely hilarious and proves that Vikander's comedic timing is top notch.
U.N.C.L.E. is frequently funny, but importantly, it's just plain fun. It evokes a simpler time (or, at least a simpler time in the movies), when super spies with infinite skills and impressive comic timing could avert global disaster with a flick of the wrist and a sly grin and global terror threats manifested in cheesy, easy-to-spot villains. Even the editing recalls a zanier time, with many action scenes split up into zigzagging frames on the screen.
This is a summer popcorn movie, certainly, but an expertly crafted one, full of thrills and big laughs. There's a hint of an origin story here, and I suspect that if U.N.C.L.E. does well, we'll see this crew again, kicking ass, cracking wise and looking impossibly stylish while doing so.