This is a great summer for espionage movie fans, what with the hilarious comedy Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy, and now this absolutely classic action thriller from Guy Ritchie. What a delight to report on such a wonderful, profoundly enjoyable film. I loved very minute of it.
I was worried about what Ritchie's first project outside the Sherlock Holmes franchise would be. The Holmes movies are terrific fun, and made to a very high standard, but the director's work prior to them was often hit and miss. Add that to the fact that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series was a beloved relic of my childhood, and I had high anxiety about how it would fare in Ritchie's hands.
I needn't have worried. This is a consumate treat, from the first instant to the last. Indeed, the movie was still scoring points as the end credits rolled on the screen — these consisted of dossiers on the main characters, and the one belonging to the Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin mentions that he's a sambo champion.
Far from being the racist slur you might suspect, "sambo" is a Russian martial art (everyone's favourite mad dictator Vladimir Putin is a "master" of it) — in other words, someone has done their research here.
The 1960s setting for The Man from UNCLE film is crucial to its success, starting in Cold War Berlin and playing on nuclear war paranoia throughout. The period is rendered pretty much flawlessly, except for the McGuffin, a rather stylish computer tape which is referred to in dialogue as a "computer disk".
Disks were a decade away, and anyhow we see at the end of the movie that it's a tape. Maybe the film makers just didn't think audiences would understand what a computer tape is (although we still talk about "taping" audio, even when using microchip technology). Oh, well.
On a more cheerful note, the swinging sixties provides some welcome fashion opportunities for the gorgeous Alicia Vikander as Gaby, a spunky female car mechanic from East Germany with a family connection to a former Nazi rocket scientist. Vikander was the luminous star of A Royal Affair and also was the best thing in Ex Machina. She's magnificent here.
All the principals are. Armie Hammer, who first made a mark as the privileged Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network, is ideal as Kuryakin.
There's some amusing dialogue about how tall he is ("A giant on the loose with a firearm," squawks the East German police radio) but it doesn't quite work because the height of people doesn't really read on screen — hence the large number of, ahem, vertically challenged male leads who become major movie stars. But there is a lovely moment when Vikander stands on a table beside him.
Henry Cavill, who was too cold as Superman is absolutely ideal as the caddish, sophisticated Napoleon Solo. The casting in this film is outstanding, as is the chemistry between the stars. (Elizabeth Debicki is also swell as an evil villain and Hugh Grant ideal as Mr Waverly.)
It's been a long time since such a fun movie hit the screens. It is also thrilling and suspenseful. Indeed, these moods are strikingly juxtaposed as in a genuinely scary and disturbing torture scene which takes an hilarious turn. Similarly, a violent and life threatening motorboat gun battle is set against a pleasant snack in the cab of a truck.
Guy Ritchie's direction is often audacious, as when what we expect to be a spectacular and protracted seaborne attack on an island is swiftly dismissed as a split screen montage. But in case anyone is disappointed, this is followed up by a smashing dune buggy chase and knife fight in the rain.
Ritchie and Lionel Wigram (who contributed to the script of Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes adaptation) wrote the excellent final screenplay of this film, working from an earlier draft by Jeff Kleeman, who has written some US television and David Wilson who wrote the film Supernova.
The music is intoxicatingly good, too. The score is by Daniel Pemberton, who recently did the BBC TV spy thriller The Game. He does outstanding work here. I was going to say at one point he sounds just like Ennio Morricone, but a Morricone track has actually been used in the film (a trick Ritchie also employed to great effect in his second Holmes movie).
A truly wonderful film, right up to the deeply satisfying ending which sets up what I hope will be a long and successful series of movies — and which reveals that Alicia Vikander is actually The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.!
It's traditional for me to end a post about a movie with a complaint about it, and this one is no different. Here it concerns the sandwich Solo devours during the aforementioned speedboat gunfight. It's supposed to be a 1960s Italian sandwich — but the bread is all wrong. They wouldn't have been eating that spongy Chorleywood processed crap at that time, or in that place. Some nice ciabatta or focaccia would have been about right.
Tsk, tsk, tsk.
(Image credits: The posters are from the trusty Imp Awards.)