3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence, suggestive content and partial nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.14.15
Having so successfully re-imagined the sleuthing Sherlock Holmes and his late 19th century London surroundings, director Guy Ritchie has plunged forward half a century and change, in order to replicate the Cold War-era intrigue of classic 1960s spy flicks.
The engaging result isn’t merely set in the twisty, double-crossing world of Iron Curtain espionage; it even looks and feels like a movie made in the 1960s, thanks to the meticulous efforts of cinematographer John Mathieson, production designer Oliver Scholl, costume designer Joanna Johnston — you have to love how she dresses Alicia Vikander — and even composer Daniel Pemberton.
But let’s be clear: This film has absolutely nothing to do with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Scripters Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman and Davis C. Wilson may have borrowed a couple of iconic character names — Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin — but the whole elaborate U.N.C.L.E. mythos has been abandoned and/or ignored.
Ritchie’s film feels much more like a blend of early Sean Connery James Bond adventures and Michael Caine’s first two Harry Palmer spy thrillers (The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin). Mind you, that’s not a bad thing ... but if Ritchie & Co. wanted to mimic a 1960s spy film, why not invent their own characters?
Messing about with a beloved TV franchise seems a risky proposition either way: Longtime fans are guaranteed to be disappointed — or even irritated — while younger viewers won’t have the faintest idea who these guys are anyway. So ... what’s the point?
This cranky rant aside, Ritchie definitely has the formula down: the all-important blend of nimble spycraft, inventively staged fisticuffs, mildly audacious action sequences and just the right dollop of bone-dry humor (shaken, not stirred). The resulting tongue-in-cheek thriller is a bit lethargic at times — editor James Herbert could (and should) have tightened some of the many talking-heads interludes — but it’s otherwise a sleek and colorful blast from the cinematic past.
The action takes place in 1963, and begins as CIA agent Solo (Henry Cavill) is sent into East Berlin to extract Gaby Teller (Vikander), the long-estranged daughter of Dr. Udo Teller, once Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist. The hope is that Gaby will lead Napoleon to her father, whose wartime research into uranium enrichment has become highly dangerous, in an unstable world where the United States and Soviet Union are locked in an anxious, high-stakes game of chicken over nuclear arms supremacy.
Gaby isn’t interested in helping, at least not initially, having no love for her long-absent parent. But her indifference vanishes when both the East German Gestapo and a rather ruthless KGB agent named Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) ALSO come looking for her. One slickly choreographed skirmish later, Solo has Gaby on the safe side of the Berlin Wall ... but that’s far from the end of the mission.
With both the Americans and Soviets worried that Dr. Teller’s efforts could destabilize the world order, an uneasy truce is arranged: Solo and Kuryakin are ordered to work together ... despite a heavy dose of mutual antipathy. Not to mention both having tried to kill the other.
Needs must, right?
Intel suggests that Dr. Teller has been invited (ordered?) to do his work for Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debicki), a cosmopolitan but morally bankrupt “power couple” with ties to war criminals and unspecified arms dealers. The potential link is Gaby’s Uncle Rudy (Sylvester Groth), a former Nazi who seems oddly tight with the Vinciguerras.
Cue a delicate and dangerous undercover operation, with Gaby passing Illya off as her fiancé, a mild-mannered Russian architect, in the belief that an impending wedding will encourage her father’s active participation. Napoleon, meanwhile, does his best to win Victoria’s lustful attention.
As the old saying goes, the best-laid plans...
While this film’s period authenticity will delight viewers old enough to remember Cold War spy flicks from back in the day, the main attraction — by far — is the prickly rivalry between Solo and Kuryakin. Cavill and Hammer have great fun poking at each other, Solo’s perpetual, self-satisfied smile forever at odds with Illya’s brooding scowl.
They’re concocted as polar opposites. Solo is a former career thief and war-era black marketeer-turned-suave agent solely to avoid a lengthy prison term; Kuryakin is a by-the-book KGB operative who takes pride in having risen through the ranks. Solo, smooth and polished, always seems amused by Kuryakin’s oh-so-serious demeanor; the Russian, in turn, can’t stand his new partner’s cavalier attitude and sense of entitlement.
Cavill delivers a juicy bon mot with the raised-eyebrow aplomb of Connery, Caine or James Coburn (remembered as Derek Flint, in the era’s best genre spoofs); Hammer growls like an irritated bear, fists forever clenched in an effort to avoid losing his hair-trigger temper and wreaking havoc.
Both men, in turn, have something of a crush on Gaby. And why not? Vikander has her own way with a saucy retort, and — particularly when clad in Johnston’s colorfully mod outfits — is utterly irresistible.
Although the Swedish actress has been quite busy for more than a decade, with strong supporting roles in period costume dramas such as A Royal Affair and Anna Karenina, she made a significant splash earlier this year, with her superb performance as the sentient android in Ex Machina. Having demonstrated her skill as a delectable provocateur here, she has become attached to the next Matt Damon Jason Bourne sequel, where I’ve no doubt she’ll be equally comfortable.
Meanwhile, her will they/won’t they scenes with Hammer’s Illya are deliciously erotic ... although a silly wrestling match is rather over the top, in an eye-rolling manner.
Debicki, in turn, is a chilling, ice-cold blonde of the most lethal sort; I’m reminded of Monica Vitti’s starring role in another fashion-conscious 1960s spy spoof, Modesty Blaise ... although she was on the side of the angels, whereas Debicki’s Victoria is deliciously capital-E Evil.
Groth’s Uncle Rudy seems benign, but we just know that the actor who played Goebbels in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds can’t be anything but a bad guy. (Groth also was the prime troublemaker in the just-concluded German TV miniseries, Deutschland 83, which merely reinforces his type-casting.)
Hugh Grant has a small but telling role as Waverly — a name certain to be recognized by U.N.C.L.E. fans — an enigmatic British operative who seems to know far more than he’s telling, and has an uncanny knack for popping up at unexpected moments.
Pemberton’s thoroughly enjoyable score is vintage 1960s action kitsch, the composer having gone so far as to restrict his orchestra to the era’s instrumentation. I’m less satisfied with Ritchie’s occasional use of period pop songs — such as Louis Prima’s “Five Months, Two Weeks, Two Days” — over action montages; it’s cute the first time, less so in repetition.
On the other hand, Ritchie’s visual pizzazz never grows tiresome, whether via cockeyed camera angles and staccato cross-cutting, or his vibrant use of split-screen during action sequences: a technique made famous by 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair, then mercilessly overused for the next decade, but now distant enough to feel fresh all over again.
But the tenuous attachment to the original U.N.C.L.E. TV series remains irritating, particularly with an oblique, final scene one-liner apparently intended to “explain” the reference. It doesn’t; indeed, it’s rather dumb. U.N.C.L.E. isn’t an operational code; it’s a whole high-level espionage organization ... but not, apparently, in Richie’s mind.
Ah, well. His in-name-only men from U.N.C.L.E. obviously had a good time making this film, and — if it’s successful enough to warrant a sequel — perhaps more familiar elements will materialize the next time around.