It’s Checkpoint Charlie in 1963, the hottest point of the cold war, and with the only door between West and East Berlin closed, CIA agent Napoleon Solo must find another way to extract his reluctant contact, mechanic Gabriella Teller. He’s assured, but she’s unconvinced: “You look important. Or at least you suit does,” she says dismissively before returning her attention to the innards of an engine.
But Solo perseveres, promising Gaby that if she accompanies him over the Berlin Wall and introduces him to her uncle, he can reunite her with her long-lost father, a nuclear physicist who is his own eventual target; Solo knows where Teller is, but he needs Gaby to get him near. The complication: an over-achieving beast of a KGB bruiser who goes by the name of Illya Kuryakin who has been tailing him since his arrival.
Playing cat and mouse through the back streets of Berlin is only the beginning in a game of one-upmanship which escalates when Solo’s handler informs him that reflecting the international concerns of the mission, for the next stage of the operation he will have a partner, a Russian agent of recent acquaintance…
A feature film reboot of the classic television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had been in development hell for over twenty years, burning through many scripts and directors before Guy Ritchie became involved, fresh from his two Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law as Baker Street’s most famous consulting detective and his chronicler.
Unlike the failed approaches of the intervening decades, Ritchie’s script, co-written with Harry Potter executive producer Lionel Wigram, has retained the approach of his hugely successful Holmes adventures, updating the presentation to meet the expectations of a modern audience with his unmistakable directorial punch but seamlessly inserting it into meticulously crafted period detail, this time escaping the grimy cobbles of Victorian London to the swinging jet set Mediterranean lives of the idle rich.
Despite the cool jazz soundtrack, the hip editing, the exquisitely tailored suits, the designer couture of the elegant ladies and the globetrotting locations worthy of any trip undertaken by their peer James Bond, all would be for naught were it not for the casting, and like his choices for Holmes and Watson Ritchie has struck gold again in Henry Cavill (Immortals, Man of Steel) and Armie Hammer (The Social Network, Mirror, Mirror), not only excellent as their individual characters but crucially as the competing double act of the Cowboy and the Red Peril.
Typically, even improvising in the face of a rapidly unravelling plan, Solo never loses his cool throughout, Kuryakin, not so much in the early stages though he soon learns how to stay afloat in the most trying of circumstances. Reflecting this, the tone and flow of the film are slightly off-kilter, with moments of a caper, thriller and buddy movie run threaded with a quirky humour which mean that while consistently entertaining the film never flies quite as high as it should.
Opposite them are Ex Machina‘s Alicia Vikander as the wilful, talented and tempestuous Gaby Teller whose cooperation they depend upon and Elizabeth Debicki, soon to be seen as Lady Macduff in Macbeth, as the icy Victoria Vinciguerra who they must crack. Solo’s handler Saunders is Jared Harris, most recently seen in Poltergeist while the eventual purpose of an apparently superfluous cameo of Cloud Atlas‘ Hugh Grant as a character named Mr Waverly will be immediately apparent to all but the most ignorant members of the audience.
Those looking for any broader tie-in to the original series may be disappointed, most particularly in the absence of Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic theme, as much a part of the show as Lalo Schifrin’s urgent introduction to the Impossible Mission Force, perhaps also taking exception to the expanded backstories of the agents, Solo an art thief released from prison for his talents to be put to government use, Kuryakin possessed of a dangerous and violent temper.
What is offered instead is an acknowledgement of the original actors, Solo’s con man background reflecting Robert Vaughn’s role on Hustle and Kuryakin’s brief undercover spell in the tweed and bow tie associated with David McCallum’s long posting to NCIS, though the most curious echo is that of the antithesis of the glamour of the mainstream sixties spy thrillers, the real risks and consequences of espionage seen through the sad and lonely eyes of David Callan reflected in the swinging lightbulb of a basement torture scene.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is now on general release and also screening in IMAX