Acting as both a prequel and a reboot to the TV show, the latest cinematic U.N.C.L.E. sees C.I.A. agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) reluctantly paired with each other by their superiors to find a missing nuclear scientist who could be the key to destabilising the fragile nuclear balance of the Cold War. Thankfully, Solo has already secured said scientist's daughter Gaby (Vikander), having spirited her out of East Germany and out of Illya's clutches in the opening scenes of the film, nicely setting the tone for the film; the rivalry between the two and their contrasting approaches to the spy game.
Now all three must travel to Italy and use all the usual accoutrements of the spy genre to find Gaby's father and prevent nuclear proliferation: secret cover identities, infiltration of both swanky parties and mysterious manufacturing facilities, a number of fist- and gunfights as well as car, boat and dune buggy chases, with the two agents constantly trying to out-do each other, slowly earning each other's trust and respect along the way.
It's a testament to Ritchie's maturation as a director that such a familiar premise is delivered in such a fresh and enjoyable fashion. The action throughout is engaging, the humour nearly always hits the target and apart from a very small number of scenes that that divide the screen into multiple panels, Ritchie mostly steers clear of any of the showier tools in his director's toolbox. Much of the novelty can be attributed to the music choices, with a canny selection of era-appropriate songs that haven't yet been used in this type of film, from the likes of Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, and Ennio Morricone amongst others, working beautifully in harmony with the on-screen action.
There are a few scenes where information is blatantly withheld from the audience to build suspense, only for it to be revealed a moment or two later, which do come off as a bit pointless but overall his direction is quite restrained.
Cavill and Hammer spark off each other excellently; whether arguing over women's fashion or the placement of surveillance bugs, their bickering only ever remains humorous and never becomes annoying.
He may not be as... unique an actor as Robert Vaughn, and while he doesn't do an impression of Vaughn, Cavill does effect a slightly clipped style of speech that is reminiscent of the previous incarnation of Solo, although sometimes it can sound more like Ed Bishop from UFO. Hammer easily keeps up with Cavill, however there are more drastic changes from the original to his Illya than Cavill's Solo.
Vikander gets to play much more than the standard damsel in distress here and an on-form Hugh Grant is a delight when he joins the action.
For fans of the original show, however, there are a few changes that may rankle. Neither agent is a member of U.N.C.L.E. at the beginning of the film, U.N.C.L.E. doesn't even exist for most of the film, and most of the well-known trappings from the show, like the distinctive triangular U.N.C.L.E. security clearance badges and communicator pens, don't appear. Like the other successful 60's franchise reboot, Star Trek, the characters are also ‘amped up’ somewhat to appeal to modern audiences. Solo is now an ex-G.I.-turned-art-thief who is only coerced into joining the C.I.A. when facing jail time for his crimes. Kuryakin, meanwhile, has been reinvented as something of a Russian rage monster, with a troubled family past, a history of psychotic breaks and a short, explosive temper.
If you can accept these changes to the formula, and wait for the inevitable sequel, fans will surely find much to enjoy here and will probably see more elements of the show in future cinematic chapters, but for now, this episode is one of the more enjoyable action experiences this summer. It's certainly the best dressed.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. / CERT: 12A / DIRECTOR: GUY RITCHIE / SCREENPLAY: GUY RITCHIE, LIONEL WIGRAM / STARRING: HENRY CAVILL, ARMIE HAMMER, ALICIA VIKANDER, ELIZABETH DEBICKI, HUGH GRANT, JARED HARRIS / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 14TH
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10