And like all things in Hollywood, it was bound to be remade as a big budget action-packed feature film.
The decision to green light this adaptation was understandably less about inspiration and more about the bottom line – money first, story second. But mercifully, the finished product proves to be the sharpest and most literate action film of the summer. Unfortunately, being the most “literate” is not likely to make it the most popular.
The backstory from the TV show concerns two colorful secret agents, one from the CIA, the other KGB, who team up to combat an organization called THRUSH.
U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Command for Law and Enforcement. Like the IMF from “Mission: Impossible,” acronyms were pretty common on TV in the past, but even though they are brought forward into the modern feature films, such quaint abbreviations are rarely defined with any level of specificity.
We’re supposed to already be familiar with the name and just accept it. The danger is that today’s viewers, the vast majority of which have never seen an episode of the source material, may get a little lost. And, thankfully, instead of dumping us headlong into the U.N.C.L.E. world, director Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes”), working from a script he penned with Lionel Wigram, takes time to properly place us in the Cold War setting and introduces the characters with a modicum of development.
And the setup is immensely entertaining if just a bit lacking in explosions and action that has marked the other summer blockbusters.
For example, at one point, Russian KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and American CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) bicker over women’s brand name fashion and whether a belt must match the dress.
Sure, they also have a fist fight, but instead of bringing down the building or the whole block, much of the action in Ritchie’s “U.N.C.L.E.” keeps the explosions and chaos to a minimum. It is refreshing.
In this reimagining of “U.N.C.L.E.,” Solo and Illya are placed together to locate and take back nuclear weapons technology that has fallen into the hands of a beautiful villainess named Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). Like most bad guys, Victoria intends to profit from the threat of worldwide nuclear conflagration by spreading nukes around.
Naturally, this potentially destabilizing proliferation activity must be stopped.
Once Illya and Solo settle down and accept that they will partner with each other, they take on a third – Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a German nuclear scientist who may be able to convince her father to abandon bomb making.
This leads to that humorous argument about women’s fashion as Illya and Solo must assist in outfitting Gaby, who’s more comfortable in mechanic’s overalls than Pierre Cardin. But, surprise, Gaby looks good in just about anything.
Guy Ritchie infuses the narrative with a hip nostalgic vibe that sets it apart from the “M:I” series and the new Bond films that transpire in a version of today’s world. And while the “U.N.C.L.E.” story takes place in the stylish 1960s, the structure has a whiz-bang modernity to it that is in keeping with most anything in the present marketplace.
This means the film moves along rapidly and never seems to drag. The two leads make dapper heroes with Cavil, who will reprise the role of Superman next year, having some of the film’s funniest moments, especially one in which he snacks on a sandwich and a bottle of wine while Illya struggles to escape.
And the chemistry between Vikander as the fetching Gaby and the simmering hunk Hammer as Illya is affecting. And the cast even includes a snarky, self-assured Brit played by Hugh Grant, who fits in cleverly.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a slick, finely cut, superbly shot, and well-mounted, intelligent romp. Sadly, it’s the smarts that will likely dim its ultimate appeal.