The Man From U.N.C.L.E. opens with a stylized newsreel depicting the rising tensions between the Communist East and Democratic West during the height of the Cold War, and a world that seemed to teeter on the edge of nuclear apocalypse. It then spends the next two hours depicting it as a funky good time. And it just works.
I am a little late to the game in reviewing this film, which gives me the benefit of seeing other reviews as well as audience reaction to the film before jumping in and giving my take, which is essentially that they took this shit way too seriously. But my position on this is good, because I can safely tell you to ignore whatever they say - this movie is great if you have a general idea of the spy genre and its history and the right expectations, all stuff I will now go over with you.
The basic plot of U.N.C.L.E. is a big Italian company with family ties to the Italian Fascists of World War II are looking to develop a nuclear bomb. The situation becomes a time crisis and in a last ditch effort, the American C.I.A. and Soviet K.G.B. decide to pool resources and team up to save the day.
The quick review is: chances are that if you read Jalopnik regularly, you will enjoy this film.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. started as an American TV show in 1964, with input from some big names in television at the time, and even James Bond creator Ian Fleming himself - who was later forced to leave the project due to many things, including concern from the film producers of the James Bond films that his new spy project would be direct competition for their franchise. The character Napoleon Solo, who is played by Henry Cavill in this new film, is credited as being created by Fleming. There also happens to be a lot of other shared blood between this and many spy franchises.
With bright colors, flamboyant titles and stylized text in a beautiful film reel highlighted in bright red to open the film, it immediately grabs your attention. The actual footage is highly-saturated, but not over-the-top, and the cinematography is mapped in a way that feels period to the 1960’s. Director Guy Ritchie, known for his British gangster flicks and the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies, has always pulled off highly-stylized filmmaking, and really goes for the technicolor look with this film. Ritchie also throws in some interesting editing techniques to keep you busy, with split-screen storytelling that harks back to its older television roots, while also possibly appealing to an audience familiar with comic books.
Looking through the technicolor lens, we are introduced to our three main characters pretty quickly - Henry Cavill as the C.I.A.’s Napoleon Solo, Armie Hammer as the K.G.B.’s Illya Kuriyakin, and Alicia Vikander as Gaby, an East German mechanic with family ties to the Nazis.
Cavill was also one of the only other actors seriously considered to play James Bond before Daniel Craig got the gig in 2006. Ironically enough, Hammer’s Russian Kuriyakin is probably closer in looks and attitude to Craig’s Bond than Cavill’s Solo.
The three main cast members look fantastic, and the costume department did a perfect job suiting our characters in modern-fitted but classically styled outfits. This is the kind of movie that makes that thousand-dollar suit in the corner of your closet seem well worth it, even if you only wear it for family weddings, and makes you want to pull it out for stuff like trips to the mall.
This is aided by the fantastic soundtrack, which mixes both period-appropriate and current artists with a similar style. The actual score for the film avoids the classic James-Bond style approach made famous by the glamorous composer John Barry, ditching the brass for most of the film, while still managing to fit the setting of the movie. There are a few times we do go slightly into to Bond-territory, but they are welcome along with mixes of Jazz and a few hints of an Ennio Morricone scored Western in there, as well. As odd as that sounds, you’ll just have to trust that it all works really well.
That brings me to the overall concept of the film itself. When describing something like a car, it’s pretty straightforward with horsepower and torque figures, 0 to 60 times, etc., but a film is difficult to gauge in a numerical aspect. Looking at the numbers, this film didn’t do great in box office gross, or its Metacritic score (55 out of 100), IMDb rating (7.6 / 10) or RottenTomatoes (66% Fresh) reviews. But like with a car, the selling point is how it actually drives - the experience you get and how much you enjoy it.
The experience is ultimately what matters, and this is where it get’s a little more tuned to each individual, in the way a bare-bones Mazda Miata appeals more to a person than a bloated BMW M3. The story handles its heavy-toned material in a light manner - after all this is the Red’s and Red, White, and Blue’s teaming up, and having more fun than they want to admit doing it. For me, it was just funny and quick enough to keep me entertained and interested in where it took me next.
Jalopnik readers should be on the look out for a few appearances from a cherry red Aston Martin DB5, which was featured in a few episodes of the original television series, and was also the original color of the DB5 used in 1964’s Goldfinger before being resprayed silver-birch.
Other fantastic additions include a sky blue Jaguar E-Type, a red E-Type driven by the villainess in the film, a fantastically modified period Land Rover, and a crazy off-roader buggy piloted by Solo towards the end of the film. There’s also a few Citroen DS-es casually commuting in a few scenes, as well as other exciting cars I am sure I missed.
Most of these cars pop up in a scene featured at a raceway in Italy, which appears to be a Grand Prix style race featuring makes and models of all types and years - though sadly they are not the focus of the scene.
So basically, if you like the Sean Connery James Bond, or if you grew up watching Mission: Impossible or even The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on television, or saw any of the John le Carré spy novel film adaptations in the 60’s and 70’s, or anything of the sort - you should like this movie. Where Bond is the solo act, and Mission: Impossible is the team effort, this movie fits nicely in between with its dynamic duo.
It is not a run-of-the-mill dark espionage thriller that tries to terrorize you with gritty fist fights and realistic explosions in a yard that could double as your own. A common complaint is also how far it drifts from its original material. The basic construct is there with quite a few tweaks, but the tone and style is dead accurate. It’s a fun story told over a blindingly stylish canvas with bombastically playful music taking you along for the ride.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is like a Mazda Miata: the numbers look low initially, but it’s a hell of a good time when you run through the gears. Some people just simply don’t get it.