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Film review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. - style and substance

Guy Ritchie's slick and sophisticated film, based on a cold-war-themed 1960s American television show, is far more appealing than his recent takes on the Sherlock Holmes stories

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 1:09pm

Following on from his two Sherlock Holmes movies, British director Guy Ritchie takes on another story driven by two male leads: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Admittedly not as famous as Arthur Conan Doyle's novels about the Baker Street detective and his loyal sidekick Dr Watson, U.N.C.L.E. was a 1960s American television show, starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as two rival spies from either side of the Iron Curtain forced to work together.

Keeping the story in the same cold war era, Ritchie and his producer/co-writer Lionel Wigram bring us the U.N.C.L.E. origin story, showing how CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB spy Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) first come together. The reason? A nuclear scientist has disappeared and with both the Russians and the Americans looking to control the arms race, Solo and Kuryakin are sent to find his daughter, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), a mechanic working in East Berlin.

Yet no sooner has Solo outrun the relentless Kuryakin to help Gaby defect to the West, than he's forced by his paymasters (led by Jared Harris) to collaborate with his Eastern European counterpart. They're sent to investigate the flamboyant Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), thought to be fronting a criminal cadre with ties to the Nazis and plans to build an atom bomb. Working for the company? Gaby's uncle Ruddy, brother to her missing scientist father.

Sophisticated and slick, Ritchie's film is far more appealing than his take on Sherlock. Cavill ( Man of Steel) and Hammer ( The Social Network) make for a fine pairing — theirs is an anti-bromance, whether they're fighting in a toilet cubicle or bickering over what '60s fashions Gaby should be wearing as part of her disguise. The dialogue is crisp and as elegant as the film's fashions, production design and Italian locations.

For once, story is valued over spectacle. Still, Ritchie conjures some fine action (notably, a speedboat chase, shown in the background, as Solo tucks into some food and a glass of Chianti). There's also some much-needed humour, courtesy of Hugh Grant's British agent Waverly, a character from the original television show who punctures the agents' bravado ("For a special agent, you're not having a very special day," he tells a duped Kuryakin).

Best of all, the female characters — the resourceful Gaby and the villainous Victoria — are far more intriguing than in most action movies. Debicki in particular delivers her lines with a cruel and chilling relish. It's a welcome change of pace for Ritchie, whose films, right back to his 1998 debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, have always been so fuelled by testosterone.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. opens on August 13

For this story and more see 48 Hours magazine, published on August 13