With James Bond enjoying a surge in popularity, and a recent proliferation of spy yarns from “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” to “Kingsman,” it seems a no-brainer to resurrect one of the most successful TV shows of the 1960s, which gave viewers two super-spies for the price of one — as well as one of that decade’s cleverest nods toward Cold War détente.
Guy Ritchie, full of confidence after his “Sherlock” outings, has produced an apt calling card for helming 007 when Sam Mendes steps down after “Spectre.” That’s if he doesn’t already have his hands full with an “U.N.C.L.E.” franchise, which he well might. Though his leads need more screen time to fine-tune their chemistry, Ritchie has created a highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek spy caper.
Fans of the show will recall that the suave, womanizing American Napoleon Solo and intense Russian Illya Kuryakin (career-defining performances by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum) were partnered in an international law enforcement agency, their adventures featuring bantering camaraderie, gadgets, beautiful women and terrific theme music.
Ritchie and his “Sherlock” co-writer Lionel Wigram give us something the show didn’t, namely the “U.N.C.L.E.” origin story, of how the CIA and KGB agents come together. While the peculiarity of the show’s title remains (it began with Solo, hence the singular), so do the two leads, along with a female whose equal significance becomes more apparent as the film progresses.
It opens at Checkpoint Charlie in 1963, with Solo (Henry Cavill) crossing into East Berlin in search of Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a German car mechanic whose scientist father has disappeared. Solo intends to extract Teller to the West, in the hope that she can help locate her dad; Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is assigned to stop them, but eventually the three will team up with a common aim, traveling to Italy to thwart former WWII fascists (led by Elizabeth Debicki’s bling-laden mastermind) with their hands on Herr Teller and his nuclear toys.
We learn that Solo is a soldier turned art thief, who’s back serving Uncle Sam to avoid a jail term; Kuryakin is a diehard Soviet – and like many diehard Soviets, has family in the gulag. If anything, their differences are more pronounced in this iteration, with Cavill decked out in Saville Row tailoring, self-assured and wryly amused, Hammer an altogether heftier and more volatile Russian than McCallum’s, his flat cap and corduroy giving the impression that at any point he might ditch the jet-setting spy malarkey and return to a collective farm.
The contrasts lend frisson and humor to the plot, whether the two men are squabbling over fashion or in the field, with the feisty Gaby proving equal parts romantic distraction, ally and thorn.
While Ritchie’s budget for international travel may be smaller than Mendes’, the visual pleasure of his film lies in the period styling, the undeniable attractiveness of the leads and the customary verve of the director’s set pieces. Two sequences stand out, each mirthfully centered around Solo’s nonchalance. The first is a car chase out of East Berlin, Solo in the back seat as Gaby drives, casually giving her directions as she and the pursuing Illya put their cars through some tremendous moves. The other comes as Solo and Kuryakin are pursued in a speedboat chase; the American somehow contrives a time out, has a spot of vino and a sandwich while listening to Louis Prima on the radio, then rejoins the action and saves the day with a splash and a final submerged shot that is simply sublime.
These sequences show Ritchie at his very best. Elsewhere, there are some misjudgements: Vikander’s out-of-place, self-consciously wacky dance scene, running jokes that run out of steam, a slightly distasteful reference to the Holocaust. It’s a great shame that the original’s scintillating signature tune was either unavailable or declined.
I also have problems believing that Cavill is American. I can’t comment on the Brit’s American accent, but there’s something about his gait here, the way he carries himself and his wardrobe that is slightly stiff and so very English. The film is awash with actors crossing borders: Jared Harris’s CIA boss, the Swedish Vikander’s German heroine, Hammer’s Russian; but this is the one that jars. If Solo’s not American, then the US-Soviet liaison doesn’t wash.
This may explain the rapport between the leads doesn’t feel quite there – they’ve still got their nationalities in a twist. They’re certainly not sparring with the panache of Downey Jr. and Law in the “Sherlock” films. That said, when Hugh Grant ambles in for what is effectively a cameo, taking the mantle of the great Leo G Carroll as “U.N.C.L.E.” boss Waverley (and, incidentally, making the character incontrovertibly English) one can easily see how the template can run and run. “For a special agent you’re not having a very special day, are you,” he admonishes one of his new spies. But they’re only just beginning.