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New York Times Movie Review

Review: ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ Resurrects a Glossy, Action-Packed ’60s

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.


Henry Cavill, left, and Armie Hammer are spies who team up during the Cold War in Guy Ritchie’s big-screen rendering of the 1960s television series. CreditDaniel Smith/Warner Bros. Pictures

Guy Ritchie makes the kind of enjoyably disreputable movies that are fun to watch until they’re not. He’s a talented flimflam artist and, for the industry, I imagine, a useful one because of how he glosses up schlocky, sketchy projects (his “Sherlock Holmes” movies and other hyperkinetic baubles), making them seem as if there’s more to their slick surfaces than naked commercialism, agency fees and facile pleasure. It works for him (he keeps getting hired), and sometimes also for us. Pleasure is, after all, rarely overrated, including in the often mind-bludgeoning arena of franchise cinema, and there’s a lot to be said for watching beautiful people doing very silly stuff on screen.

His latest, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” is, as its title trumpets, a big-screen rendering of that 1960s television series. Running from 1964 to ’68, the show centered on a pair of operatives, an American, Napoleon Solo (named by Ian Fleming, an early creative adviser, and played with unctuous suavity by Robert Vaughn), and his nimble Soviet counterpart, Illya Kuryakin (a professionally enigmatic David McCallum, working a blond Beatle fringe and contrasting turtlenecks). In a flourish of showbiz détente, the spies have been teamed to fight one of those fictional criminal outfits (T.H.R.U.S.H.) that make it seem as if real-world villainy can be handled with little more than charm and Zippo lighters that fire bullets. The television series is a goof, and a fig leaf for Cold War dread.


Anatomy of a Scene | Man From U.N.C.L.E.

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Anatomy of a Scene | Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Guy Ritchie narrates a sequence from “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

By MEKADO MURPHY on  Publish Date August 13, 2015. Photo by Daniel Smith/Warner Bros. Pictures. Watch in Times Video »

The movie opens in 1963 but tries hard not to be a museum piece, partly with a slick, agitated style. It revs up in the vicinity of Checkpoint Charlie, somewhere in East Berlin, but stays there only long enough to crash some cars and pick up the actress Alicia Vikander. She plays Gaby, one of those amusingly all-purpose characters who, in addition to having some useful relatives — her father is a nuclear physicist, her uncle an unreconstructed Nazi — can fix a car engine, slip into a couture outfit and snap a flaccid line to life. Mostly, she is the regulation Girl and narrative bridge uniting the new Napoleon (Henry Cavill, a charming stiff who seems mostly interested in trying to mimic Mr. Vaughn’s staccato) with the new Illya (Armie Hammer, easier on the eyes than ears).

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‘Mission: Impossible,’ ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ and How They Diverge

The two TV espionage shows, now both on big screens, share pages from the spy-movie playbook.

Gaby also serves as the political football in the opener, which finds Napoleon coercing her to go over the wall in the name of the greater good or some such. First, though, they need to outmaneuver Illya, which they do in one of those Tom-and-Jerry chases that nicely shows off the stunt performers’ wheel skills in providentially emptied streets. Written by Mr. Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, the movie throws out a lot of plot, most of which disintegrates on impact but pragmatically leads to Napoleon, Illya and Gaby in cahoots. Locations change as fast as the actors’ outfits, and at one point Hugh Grant shows up at the races as does another attraction, the villainous Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), who brings to mind by turns a lost Redgrave relative and Madonna, Mr. Ritchie’s ex.

At times “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” works better as a fashion show than a movie, with a wardrobe — Mary Quant-like minis, form-fitting bespoke suits, a caftan that Jean Shrimpton could have worn (a few years later) for a Vogue shoot — that expresses more about the era than anything in the script. (The costume designer is Joanna Johnston.) Mr. Ritchie tends to flaunt his wares like a store clerk, fawning over the clothes, chairs and cars, and his usual rabbity pace slows to a tortoiselike crawl whenever the actors deliver a lot of words, which gratefully isn’t often. His talent, as he proves repeatedly, is making bodies and cars crash through space, and there’s a long, divertingly twisty and wordless chase near the end that suggests he would have just killed in Mack Sennett’s studio.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Bloodless mayhem.

Tags: movie 2015

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