(Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)
Saving the world never goes out of fashion, be it in today’s digital universe or in the shadows of the Berlin Wall, in 1963, when the Cold War was at its peak.
Here lies the appeal of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, an action-packed international adventure, shot through with humor, about the partnership of two superspies – CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) with the mission to save mankind.
Both Solo and Illya were sent to extract the same vital German asset from behind the Berlin Wall. But first, they had to stop trying to kill each other to foil a mysterious criminal organization bent from destroying the world with nuclear weapons.
That’s after they get entangled in the mandatory bare-knuckled, bust-up-the-furniture, “getting to know you” fight.
The duo’s only lead is the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to infiltrating the criminal organization, and they must race against time to find him and prevent a global catastrophe.
““It’s a zone I find fascinating, the way men interact with each other. Going back to ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,’ I’m drawn to that male-to-male dynamic as kind of a genre unto itself,” says Guy Ritchie, who directed, produced, and co-wrote “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” screenplay, based on the hit 1960s TV series of the same name.
So in some respects, it’s a buddy movie although “We kick the living daylights out of each other as soon as they meet,” says Henry Cavill, who stars as Solo, the suave and often self-serving American agent.
Starring as Illya, Armie Hammer offers the volatile but more conventional Russian’s point of view.
“Illya is the ultimate soldier, always in line and giving his best. Then he’s thrust into a position that he hates and there’s nothing he can do about it. Solo’s so unorthodox. He doesn’t follow the rules. He doesn’t even seem to know there are rules.”
“What we found so irresistible was taking these polar-opposite agents and forcing them together so that they start out trying to annihilate each other and end up cooperating, but maybe still not entirely trusting each other,” Ritchie explained.
“The story is largely the evolution of their collaboration. The fact that one represents capitalist America and the other represents communist Russia, and these two super powers have to team up to neutralize a threat with global stakes, is a great premise that you can have a lot of fun with, and that’s really the spine of the story.”
The film opens in 1963. The U.S. and the Soviet Union are locked in a tense, high-stakes game of chicken over nuclear arms supremacy, and the wartime research of former Nazi scientists is still at a premium on the not-so-open market.
A 12-foot concrete wall divides post-World War II Berlin and under its long shadows, Solo and Kuryakin first size each other up in a breakneck, winner-take-all street chase.
Their coveted prize is Gaby Teller, a whip-smart East German auto mechanic played by Alicia Vikander, who is also the estranged daughter of Dr. Udo Teller, once Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist.
Doc Teller, now missing, forced both world powers into a race to find him before his extremely dangerous knowledge is channeled into weaponry that could obliterate entire countries.
His daughter, Gaby, is the only bait that can flush him out.
Retaining the Cold War ambiance, with all its cultural and political touchstones, Ritchie acknowledges, “It’s a tip of the hat to the series. We wanted to capture the uniqueness of that time while making it immediately accessible to today’s audiences.”
The resulting tenor “is both period and contemporary, which feels like a very natural process to me.”
In the same way that the “Sherlock Holmes” films took audiences into Victorian London without losing the edge that made them so sharp and current, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” distills everything that made the 1960s cool – from its art, fashion and music, to its attitudes and perspectives – into a spot-on but understated vibe that is both retro and undeniably 21st century.
“That’s the Guy Ritchie magic,” Lionel Wigram, the co-scriptwriter remarks. “He strikes a certain note which makes everything feel ‘of today.’”
“What I remember most about the series was its tone,” Ritchie reflects. “And when the opportunity arose for me to make the movie, that’s what inspired me. The idea of ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ just rang a bell for me. I had an intuitive response to it.”
In some ways, the 1960s depicted in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a rare and enticing moment in time that only really existed on screen.
“For us, the ‘60s were the coolest decade and ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ was a part of that,” Wigram continues.
“We were always keen on doing a spy story. We loved the early Bond movies, which really made an imprint on our young minds and then the Italian and French films of the time, like ‘L’Avventura’ and ‘La Dolce Vita,’ that had a particular flavor we found so stylish and interesting. Whether it’s the clothes, the cars, the movies, or the design, the ‘60s really marked the beginning of the modern age.”
It’s their shared influences, combined with a passion for cinema and a simpatico sense of humor, that make Ritchie and Wigram such a tight writing team.
“It’s great having a producing partner who can write, because writing is fundamental to filmmaking and the story is an organic, living, ongoing process,” Ritchie stressed.
“We both love the idea of taking a classic genre and putting a twist on it,” Wigram adds. “And Guy is constantly trying to do something new with the action, to give audiences something they haven’t quite seen before.”
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” stands entirely by itself. But for those familiar with its genetic line, there’s a bonus in sharing their affection for an archetype that enthralled mid-1960s television viewers and spy-game aficionados on both sides of the Atlantic.
“When I was growing up, they were the coolest guys with the coolest gadgets and weapons,” recalls co-producer John Davis, who was raised in the U.S.
“It was a secret international force working behind the scenes to keep the planet safe, like the United Nations of the spy world, and I loved it.”
Typifying the young British fan of the time, Hugh Grant, who stars as the enigmatic Waverly, confesses, “I had a ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ model car. I believe you pressed the top off and it shot guns out of the sides. I might still have it.”
One reason that tales of espionage and secret agendas continue to thrill and entertain, generation upon generation, might be the cyclic nature of history and politics.
“Without getting too deep,” co-producer David Clark-Hall suggests, “With the massive amount of recent revelations about the sort of spying that still goes on, I think people are intrinsically fascinated by the nature of relationships and the opportunity for betrayal, the complex alliances nations find themselves in, and not being sure who to trust. In some ways today’s world is reflective of the tensions of the ‘60s that the movie plays on.”