Guy Ritchie’s transition from maker of gritty British crime flicks like Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels to purveyor of slick Hollywood entertainment continues. The Man From UNCLE, the 46-year-old director’s first film since 2011’s enormously successful Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, is a stylish and expensive-looking spy film based on the classic American TV series.
That series ran from 1964 to 1968 against the backdrop of the Cold War, which made the working relationship between its lead characters, American secret agent Napoleon Solo and Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin, especially tense. Wisely, Ritchie and his co-writer Lionel Wigram (who produced Sherlock…) haven’t tried to make this premise contemporary. The film begins in 1963 when Solo (Henry Cavill, Man Of Steel) is forced to join forces with Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, The Social Network) for the first time on a mission to halt a mysterious criminal organisation led by glamorous Italian shipping magnate Victoria Vinciguerra (The Great Gatsby‘s Elizabeth Debicki). Their key to infiltrating Vinciguerra’s operation is a feisty young German woman called Gaby Teller (played by Ex Machina star Alicia Vikander), whose missing father, a scientific genius, is believed to be building its nuclear weapons.
Their tussle with Vinciguerra remains reasonably gripping as it takes the spy genre’s usual series of hairpin twists and turns, but what really appeals about The Man From UNCLE is its sumptuous period detail – most of the film is set in elegantly wealthy Italy – and jovial tone, which peaks when Ritchie introduces Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant), a witty British intelligence officer who ribs Solo and Kuryakin and will eventually become their boss as head of the United Network Command For Law And Enforcement (UNCLE). Ritchie’s film definitely feels like a triumph of style over substance, but it’s a consistently likeable one.
The final scene shamelessly sets up a sequel, but this film’s franchise potential will ultimately depend on whether the audience accepts that Cavill and Hammer, actors who lack the natural magnetism of someone like Sherlock’s Robert Downey Jr, are credible as charismatic badasses pulling off effortless feats of international espionage. Though each does enough to earn the benefit of the doubt – Cavill is handsome and appealingly glib; Hammer is handsome and appealingly earnest – they’re upstaged by Debicki’s scene-stealing turn as their deliciously sniffy foil. Next time out, the men from UNCLE will need to raise their game.