The Man from U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t have much to do with its 50-year-old TV source material beyond the basic skeleton of its premise: two secret agents, one American and one Soviet, team up to stop bad guys at the height of the Cold War. The series was a cheap but slick Bond ripoff with cardboard sets, sexy girls, and a couple of charismatic leads. A pop artifact. Here Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) must recruit the daughter (Alicia Vikander) of a nuclear scientist who’s been kidnapped by impeccably-named nefarious aristocrat Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), presumably so he can build her a bomb. It’s a barely-there plot that seems to have been deliberately stripped of anything that doesn’t service its artifice, all the better to serve his perpetually hot leads.
It’s totally frivolous, the perfect update of what was always meant to be merely candy, and his best movie in ages.
Director Guy Ritchie may have found his true calling here, an elaborate exercise in empty style, crucially maintaining the chic 60s trappings, packed with exotic locations, gorgeous performers in perfect clothes, and snappy if mindless action. The TV series never achieved the cultural cache that, say, Star Trek did, and without a canon to lean on, fans to really service, or boring angsty handwringing over the emotional toll of being a spy, Ritchie’s fallen back on a fantastic set of influences. The secret passageways and analog gadgets recall vintage Italian euro-spy knockoffs more than Bond films. The lovely Mediterranean location work and smirking, perpetually aloof characters might as well be from Losey’s camp spectacle Modesty Blaise (see that if you haven’t), and the clipped, rambunctious (if typically hyperactively edited) action sequences are right out of Mario Bava’s comic-book masterpiece Danger: Diabolik. The soundtrack veers from giallocomposer Stelvio Cipriani to Nina Simone. Rather than make an ugly, smugly self-conscious parody like his old producer Matthew Vaughn did earlier this year with Kingsman: The Secret Service, Ritchie revels in silly inconsequence, comically contrived narrative tropes, and a fashion-magazine aesthetic. It’s totally frivolous, the perfect update of what was always meant to be merely candy, and his best movie in ages.