Guy Ritchie seems to be pitching his remake of the popular TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. about halfway between a Peroni advert and an episode of Are You Being Served? Sumptuously lavish and abounding with the most glamorous examples of 1960’s haute couture, but also throbbing, and I mean fit to burst, with innuendo. Not five minutes goes by without some smart aleck quipping about ‘getting turned on’ or ‘being good with his fingers’ or some other such rudeness; much of it set against the impossibly beautiful backdrop of the Italian Riviera. In a way, this frivolity sums up much of what is both good and bad about Ritchie’s film. It’s a frothy romping caper, happy to inject a light-hearted sense of fun into a genre that has been without humour for a while. It’s also a film that spends much of its time indulging in the sort of off-hand bawdiness that the spy genre jettisoned some time ago. Whether this is deployed in some arch, ironic way or to be taken at face value is not quite clear.
Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer take up the roles of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin respectively. Solo, an ex-art thief in the employ of the CIA and Kuryakin, the KGB’s golden boy, must put aside their mutual distrust and professional rivalry to track down a missing Nazi scientist with links to a shady terrorist network hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon. Along the way they pick up a German mechanic (Alicia Vikander), daughter of the missing scientist and must find a way to work together, without turning the mission into one enormous Cold War pissing contest.
Ritchie clearly likes to have some fun with his films and is obviously enjoying the lavish throw-back to a genre and television series that allows him to indulge in stylish whimsy. Blasting vintage Italian pop music at full volume and splitting his screen à la Jewison and Frankenheimer, Ritchie succeeds in bringing a distinct, modish 60’s visual aesthetic to the film.
Cavill and Hammer seem suitably ill-at-ease with each other, which, despite some complaints levelled at the film, is appropriate. Solo and Kuryakin are supposed to be uncomfortable in each other’s company at this early stage in their working relationship and their uneasy game of one-upmanship has a kind of creaky honesty. Whether this is through sublime acting or a fortuitous real-life lack of dexterity, I’m not too sure.
What’s also not clear is the motivation for Ritchie’s deployment of the questionable ribaldry. Are we remembering a time when espionage films regularly indulged in asinine humour and laughing at it in a smug, ironic way? Are we supposed to take it at face value and laugh along with the shagging gags? It’s never quite clear and it’s here that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. appears to get caught in a sort of throwback-pastiche middle-ground.
It makes for a film that’s fun enough, with Vikander supplying a brash sense of pluck and Hugh Grant a dash of charm in a nice cameo, but one which leaves you feeling slightly confused as to its intent.
Action, Adventure | USA,UK, 2015 | 12A | 14th August 2015 (UK) | Warner Bros. | Dir.Guy Ritchie | Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant, Luca Calvani, Jared Harris