Despite my long-standing affection for the original television series, I didn't work up a lot of enthusiasm for a new take on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., and it doesn't seem like a lot of other people did, either. But this actually turned out to be one of the unfairly buried treasures of the year.
Let me explain: I don't have any true sacred cows when it comes to familiar roles being taken over by new actors. I'm not a Connery, Moore, et al fan so much as I'm a "James Bond" fan, and I thought Steve Carrell did a fine job as Maxwell Smart without resorting to an impersonation of Don Adams. But after MAN OF STEEL and THE LONE RANGER I had serious misgivings regarding Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer; and while I really liked Guy Ritchie's first SHERLOCK HOLMES movie, the sequel (though I didn't hate it) led me to believe that Ritchie was going to overdo it with the stylization yet again. But... I was wrong.
So. It's 1963 and Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is tasked with freeing one Gaby (Alicia Vikander) from the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, the better for her to reconnect with her family and lead the C.I.A. to some suspicious Nazi-related activities. Determined to prevent this mission from succeeding is superhuman K.G.B. agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer). Solo believes he's successfully thwarted the Russian, only to find that the two have been most reluctantly teamed owing to ongoing complications. So it's off to Italy with them for some good old-fashioned spy adventures.
Cavill does well to bring us the suave and cocky Solo we've come to expect through a lifetime of Robert Vaughn, but Hammer's Kuryakin is anything but a David McCallum clone... he's a moody powerhouse prone to psychotic episodes which he's forced to squelch in his cover role as a Russian architect, much to his furious chagrin and Solo's amusement. You'd expect an old-school U.N.C.L.E. fan like yours truly to find that quite jarring, but the two have great chemistry and they make it work, aided immeasurably by Vikander as their mutual foil (between this and EX MACHINA, I'm ready to declare her Best Actress of 2015 and leave it at that). After that, why not bring in Hugh Grant for Leo G. Carroll as Waverly? It's all good.
And it's good because Ritchie doesn't waste time or effort either to duplicate the series or deliberately flout it--there are no cameos from the original cast or even a reprise of the familiar theme music, but you won't miss any of that. What he's crafted here is a richly detailed and authentic spy adventure/comedy straight out of the 1960s, and the Italian setting also plays host to one of the year's very best soundtracks (Daniel Pemberton invokes everyone from Montenegro to Morricone without even referencing the original theme music, and there's plenty of local color to be heard along with that). Meanwhile, you certainly get fights and vehicle chases, but they never attempt to overwhelm you in today's "climax every ten minutes" style... indeed, one of the very best scenes in the film has Solo forced to take his own sweet time and enjoy the show while the boat pursuit from which he's been ejected continues to rage in the background.
I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to reluctance to give this a chance in the first place--but now I'm sorry that the public indifference will almost certainly prevent any future installments. This was a refreshing treat and I recommend you catch it on the big screen before it gets away.
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