Early into his career, the jury was out on Guy Ritchie. He delivered the double smash hits Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch at the end of the 90’s and was hailed as the UK’s answer to Quentin Tarantino. But he quickly became typecast as a gangster film director and then, when he married Madonna, his off-screen escapades started to overshadow those on-screen. The two parts of his life collided when he directed his wife in the much-derided Swept Away, then when he retreated back into familiar territory with Revolver it was met with indifference. It took a move into the mainstream to save his career and reputation with the two very successful Sherlock Holmes films. Both were stylish and entertaining, yet retained some of his independent film spirit and feel, and helped establish his name across the pond.
All of this primed him very nicely to tackle a big screen version of hit 60’s TV series The Man from U.NC.L.E; a famous American show with an English sensibility and two warring heroes who are diametrically opposed in their techniques, much like Holmes and Watson. Intriguingly, and unlike its nearest blockbuster season competitor Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Ritchie decided to set the film in the era the TV series was made. It’s a move that worked very well for Ritchie’s friend and former producer Matthew Vaughan when he made X Men: First Class a few years ago and pays dividends here. So what we get is a very slick, stylish celebration of retro cool that fizzes off the screen with incredible production design throughout. The opening titles with their old school take on the famous Warner Bros logo are reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s work with the Ocean’s Eleven series, while we are brought up to date with a montage of stock newsreel that takes us from the end of WWII to the Cuban Missile Crisis. This clearly announces that we’re in a time where Kennedy is still in the White House, the Cold War is in full swing and people know how to dress well. Really well.
The opening sequence perfectly sets up the tone and characters with whom we’ll spend the next two hours. An immense car chase through a wall-divided Berlin manages to thrill with sharp direction and editing, and generate laughs with a witty script and performances. Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill plays suave and completely unflappable U.S. agent Napoleon Solo, who is assigned to track down the daughter of a German nuclear physicist called Gaby Teller – a sassy Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina)- and smuggle her from East into West Germany. The Social Network and The Lone Ranger’s Armie Hamer plays KJB operative Illya Kuryakin, who pursues them relentlessly but ultimately unsuccessfully during their escape. In the very next scene, both their commanding officers introduce them and instruct them to work together for an inter-governmental agency that will help keep the peace, and this is where the real fun begins.
The mismatched trio embark on a fun and breezy traipse through familiar setups as Gaby and Illya pose as a couple while Solo woos the wife of the chief baddie to get closer to foiling their plot. The team put the wheels in motion in a fancy hotel, where much of the action takes place, and take in impressive period locales such as a great racetrack party (filmed at our very own Goodwood). At this point in the plot, we become introduced to Hugh Grant’s small but perfectly formed role as their boss. It’s a revelation from the man doomed to appear in every romantic comedy ever made, and with a slight twist of his regular screen persona, with added greying locks and period specs it’s a wonder he hasn’t done more of this kind of work before. The kinetic style of the film doesn’t let up here, and there’s an almost dizzying amount of cool music on the soundtrack that punctuate every single scene. It must be the most track-laden film since Scorsese’s Casino 20 years ago but it fits the mood of the film nicely. The three leads spark off each other well and there’s a strong chemistry between them, even if Cavill does sound like The Matrix’s one-note Agent Smith throughout. He speaks. Very. Deliberately. The. Whole. Time.
A standout sequence has the spies wage a battle in the middle of a closed dockyard (filmed in Kent’s Chatham), evading the goons with machine guns in a speedboat. Within the scene there ‘s a sublime moment where Solo literally pops out of the action for a spot of supper he has salvaged. Now that’s class. There’s also a fantastic scene where the tables are turned on a former Nazi torturer, that the most liberal viewer will find hard not to see as the merits of the eye for an eye response. All nimbly made and, while fairly unoriginal, all turned in on a spit an polish by its director and production team with a smart throwaway closing moment that explains the title – just when you thought you were going to walk out clueless. We’d like to see more of these in the future if possible please geezer.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is out now in UK cinemas.