Title: The Man From UNCLE
Director: Guy Ritchie
Major Players: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Hugh Grant
Out Of Five: 3.5
Prepare yourself for a deluge of nostalgia. The arrival – or should that be return? – of The Man From UNCLE on the big screen this week brings with it 60s fashions, gadgets and a dollop of history as context. The Cold War, the atom bomb and the election of President Kennedy.
If you’re old enough to remember the original, you might be expecting a re-make especially for the cinema. That’s not what we get from Guy Ritchie. Instead, he’s given us a prequel but one which, apart from a few details, doesn’t bear much relation to the TV series. How you feel about that will depend on your age and your memories.
In the early 60s, American CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) helps scientist’s daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander) to escape from East Germany into the West so she can track down her father. But the spy finds he has to work with top KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to rescue the scientist from the hands of a powerful family – and also prevent them from making use of his invention. An atom bomb.
Not everybody remembers the TV series, of course. And, as far as they’re concerned, they’ll be watching a slick spy caper. For those who can look back at the days when UNCLE was compulsory viewing every week, well ……. they’ll be watching another slick spy caper. The names of the two central characters haven’t changed, they come from the same countries as before, they’ve got those nifty 60s guns with silencers but, after that, the similarities fizzle out rapidly.
Henry Cavill follows very much in the footsteps of Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo, all slicked back dark hair and sharp suits, but Armie Hammer as Kuryakin is no David McCallum. For one thing, he’s a huge 6 ft 5 ins tall, while McCallum was a slight 5 ft 7 ins, with a floppy Beatle-style haircut. For another, Hammer’s accent is almost as impenetrable as a thick layer of Russian snow. As for UNCLE itself, the organisation only puts in an appearance right at the end of the film, leaving the door gaping in preparation for a sequel. And that is pretty much on the cards.
Because, despite the UNCLE heritage being nothing more than a peg for the story to hang on, the film’s a sharp ‘n’ smart piece of spy hokum. And it’s done with all the style and gloss you’d expect from Ritchie, who makes great use of the 60s setting. He revives the split-screen technique of the day, but gives us a variation with some more unusual geometrical shapes. And the clothes will be a joy for dedicated followers of fashion. Alicia Vikander wears her bold, chunky earrings, big hats and mini-skirts extremely well while Elizabeth Debicki’s arch villainess is resplendent in geometric patterns and the heavy eye make up of the time, all black eyeliner and pale shadow. We get a glimpse of some of the gadgets of the day as well – telephones with their dials set in the base, for example. They were trendy, but so awkward to use!
There is one other similarity with the original. The film, inevitably, doesn’t take itself in the least bit seriously, sending up both the characters and the genre, and the gags extend well beyond the verbal. But there are plenty of those, mainly based on Solo and Kuryakin’s mutual distrust: they’re a bit hit and miss and the continual snipes about the Russian’s huge physique soon run out of steam. But enough of them hit the mark to keep the chuckles flowing and the way some scenes are so deliberately posed raises a smile as well.
Guy Ritchie’s The Man From UNCLE doesn’t bear much resemblance to the original. What it lacks on that front, it makes up for with plenty of panache and a sense of style which anchors the film in the 60s. Younger audiences and Ritchie fans will lap it up. Fans of the TV series might feel their memories have been hung out to dry – and curl up with a box set of the original.
The Man From UNCLE is released in cinemas on Friday, 14 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures.