It might not have been a groundbreaking show in many respects, but the original “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” (and typesetters, I apologize in advance for having to make you utilize all those periods) was kind of extraordinary in at least one important aspect: In the height of the Cold War, a mere two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, an event which very nearly sparked thermonuclear Armageddon between the world’s two largest superpowers, an American TV show premiered featuring a pair of spies, one American and one Soviet, forming an alliance under the auspices of global peace. For four seasons, Napoleon Solo (played in the TV version by Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) worked together in nearly perfect harmony taking down the dangerous counteragents of T.H.R.U.S.H.
I mean, there’s no need to oversell this, it’s not like the show – which notably starred a Scotsman as the aforementioned Russian – somehow lead to the falling of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet Union, but at a time when most Americans were either terrified of the Soviets, or gung ho to wipe them off the face of the planet, one light-hearted, kind of silly secret agent TV series suggested to Americans a better way.
Taken in that context, the cinematic remake of the show – and with it, Hollywood’s keeping alive their dubious, lazy policy of pirating old ‘60s TV shows instead of fashioning anything new (at this rate, we can expect to see “The Partridge Family” sometime soon, with Liam Neeson as Reuben Kinkaid) – couldn’t exactly mine the same kind of tension the old series employed, but under the careful hand of director Guy Ritchie, it becomes a kind of breezy, odd-pairing buddy picture, not at all unlike his take on Sherlock Holmes, made popular by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.
Here, we have Solo (Harry Cavill, employing a monotone aristocratic accent that serves him well), a slick American spy, with a penchant for cracking safes and stealing valuables; and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), a towering Soviet ultra-goon, with an anger problem and the ability to tear car trunk doors off their hinges. After spending the film’s opening salvos battling each other to whisk the beautiful German car mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) out of East Berlin, the three are paired up by their American and Soviet handlers to infiltrate an Italian syndicate lead by the winsome Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) and her Nazi husband, Alexander (Luca Calvani), a race car driver with a penchant for nuclear warheads. It turns out that Gaby’s estranged father (Christian Berkel), a former Nazi scientist, has been kidnapped by the syndicate in order to make nuclear weapons the syndicate can sell over the open market.
Thus ensues an amusing cavalcade of set-pieces, from a memorable chase scene on a pair of speedboats, to a bushwhacking romp through dense forest on dune buggies and motorcycles. Through it all, you have the ever-cool Solo, whose voice never modulates louder than that of a patron requesting a check at a French bistro, and the on-the-edge Kuyakin doing his level best not to kill everyone he encounters.
You also have the usual assortment of Ritchie tricks: split-screen action ramblings, clever bits of misdirection – one of his favorite maneuvers, where he intentionally blocks certain key elements in his narrative, only to revisit them later with the added effect of enhanced hindsight, makes multiple appearances – breathless, fizzy action sequences involving unexpected camera angles and inspired editing, all of which combine to make this a sugary spike of an action flick that has nothing much more on its mind than to be entertaining and have some fun with itself in the process.
Alas, it doesn’t give a hell of a lot for Gaby to do, other than one scene in a hotel room she’s sharing with her supposed “finacé,” Kuryakin, where she gets wildly drunk and starts dancing to the radio before tackling her would-be husband into a side table, nor does it ever rise up much above its frivolous roots – the one scene you might be able to describe as actually dark, with Solo being tortured by a sadistic former Nazi butcher, ends with yet another silly sight gag.
The effect is particularly beneficial to both the male leads – Cavill, whose grim portrayal of Superman in Man of Steel, made him seem as if he had just bitten into a raw onion, gets to ham it up with his suave discourse and unruffleable feathers; while, Hammer, last seen – if at all – in Gore Verbinksi’s disastrous Lone Ranger debacle, gets to atone for his former sins, playing an amusing character far easier to get behind.
It’s most certainly piffle – the closest the film has to a subtext involves shameful fathers whose children have suffered in their absence, and even that’s a bit of a reach – but it’s not unamusing. Ritchie has more or less perfected his kind of kinetic, bubbly action films, laughing at themselves just enough so we don’t have to take them very seriously, while laying down the conventions of the genre with a certain amount of style and wit. This U.N.C.L.E. (last time, I promise!) makes absolutely no pretense of existing for any reason beyond our general amusement, but it also hardly makes a case for itself. It might be the least necessary film of an already over-stuffed summer, but at least, like one of Solo’s stylish suits, it’s well-tailored.
Find more confounding amusements and diversions at his blog, Sweet Smell of Success, or read his further 142-character rants and ravings at @kafkaesque83.