I love James Bond. I know it might sound a bit weird to open a non-James Bond film like that but hear me out. While I am a fan of Daniel Craig’s interpretation and modern portrayal of Ian Fleming’s famous character, I still harken for the days of Connery and Lazenby, with the Cold War being the backdrop for their spying escapades. Does The Man From U.N.C.L.E. give fans like me a new spy-related alternative?
The Man From U.N.C.L.E stars Henry Cavill, Arnie Harmer, Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant and Jared Harris with Guy Ritchie both directing and writing. Based off the hugely successful TV show of the same name, the plot follows CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) teaming up with KGB agent Illya Kuriakin (Harmer) to thwart a rogue faction from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Firstly the film looks gorgeous. Guy Ritchie knows how to operate a camera better than most directors working today, and the camerawork has a very old-skool vibe about it, strengthening the idea that this is a throwback to the early Bond adventures. After the dark streets of East Berlin, the films swiftly moves to Rome, with the sets having a glow around them, making it look and feel like a film that would have starred Audrey Hepburn if it had been made half a century ago. The movement of the camera is also worthy of praise for the making the film look as good as it is. The camera moves around effortlessly, soaking in the beautiful surroundings throughout the film and then the Ken Adam inspired sets near the middle of the film. The camera moves at just enough of a slow pace to let us appreciate the craft with which the film was made.
To focus on the actors, nearly everyone here is on top performance. Our two main leads, Cavill and Harmer are polar opposites of each other, with Cavill being the ever lovable rogue and Harmer the quiet and psychotic Russian who looks like he’s going to blow up at any point. The two actors bounce perfectly off each other, with some of the funniest parts of dialogue coming from their two different approaches to spying for their respective countries. The majority of the jokes coming from this dissonance between the two, including a hilarious sequence near the middle of the film that I won’t spoil here. Hugh Grant is his usual quintessential British self, with only Alicia Vikander turning in a sometimes wooden and emotionless performance.
Despite the aforementioned hilarious sequences, the gags aren’t always up to scratch. The jokes don’t always fall the right way leading to these awkward pauses during the film where they thought the audience was going to laugh. They happen periodically throughout the film, including a segment where Kuriakin is trying to show off his cover story to Vikander’s character, Gaby. It just feels a bit forced when the films is trying to push the jokes in where they have no weight to them, feeling like fluff to pass the time.
The fight scenes in the film are similar to the jokes in that there can be a huge divide in quality. While some fight scenes, including an early one between our two leads can have a nice Paul Greengrass-handheld camera look to them as well as getting to see some of Kuriakin’s Spock-like super attacks, most of the other fight scenes just devolve into quick cut close-ups of hands and bodies flying around, ending with most of the bad guys on the floor.
The main problem that I found with the film however is the bad guys. While we get an expository sequence at the beginning detailing who these people are and their actions, they never really have a powerful presence on screen or off it either. They just seem to be shells for our heroes to focus on. Their comeuppance at the end of the film feels very anti-climatic and it feels as if the writers realised they had a few too many loose ends at the end of the film and needed to quickly tie them all up before the credits.
In conclusion, The Man From U.N.C.L.E is a beautiful old world style spy film, filled with all the fun of an early James Bond film. And with an end credit sequence that hints at a promising new film franchise, it could be that Bond won’t be the only spy that the cinema adores.
Score: 8/10 A fun romp into the golden age of spies.