We are so far away from the 1960s now that the decade has a thoroughly romanticised memory in popular culture. The era of the miniskirt, Swinging London, The Avengers (the British spy duo, not the comics), Thunderbirds, the sexiest President ever (JFK), Adam West’s Batman, the Beatles…the list goes on. We know it wasn’t like this, but it’s kind of irresistible. Of course, a film that isn’t going to help lessen this romanticism is The Man From U.N.C.L.E. One might argue this is a bad thing, but it really isn’t.
I often despair at how many films want to make a commentary on the world, but every so often a movie will come along that wants nothing more than for us to have fun looking at a sexy and exciting world full of sexy and exciting people doing sexy and exciting things. Directed by Guy Ritchie, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stylises 1960s Europe with the Cold War as a backdrop, seeing Henry Cavill’s con-man-turned-CIA-superspy Napoleon Solo team up with the KGB’s most ruthless killer, Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) in order to chase down a criminal syndicate of Nazi sympathisers trying to create an atomic bomb. They also have to work with and protect the beautiful Gaby Teller, an East German mechanic whose father has been kidnapped by these evil Nazis. Can they track down these villainous Teutonic terrorists (plot twist, they’re Italian) in time, without taunting each other into an early grave?
The simple plot allows the characters room to breathe, and as a consequence you can tell that Cavill and Hammer in particular are having a lovely time. Henry Cavill was carved from the stuff of angels precisely so he could inhabit such a larger than life role as this (and the fact that he replaced Tom Cruise in the role was a godsend). Never having seen the TV show on which this film is based, I can’t speak for how true to Robert Vaughn’s original Solo Cavill’s version is, but he’s certainly dripping with charm, and his immaculately tailored costumes hang from his immense shoulders as though he was born in them. As for Hammer, he doesn’t get to be quite as sexy playing Kuryakin, instead having to play the role undercover as a slightly hapless nerdy type for most of the film. However, when he goes full Kuryakin, he infuses it with a dry deadpan that almost makes you believe he truly is Russian! Alicia Vikander as Gaby Teller steals a number of scenes with her passion and motivation, and she spins it so well that a number of twists surrounding her character are genuinely surprising. Elizabeth Debicki chews the scenery as the beautiful and evil Victoria Vinciguerra, and when Hugh Grant eventually enters proceedings we can see that he has matured from a stuttering fop into Roger Moore! All these characters are written marvellously, and with just the right balance of wit and seriousness.
This is a refreshingly modern take on the 1960s. I mean, it’s not the unexpected feminist triumph that was Max Max Fury Road, but nor is it James Bond. There’s none of the expected male chauvinism; indeed, the women of the film are very powerful, while the men talk about fashion. It’s idealistic and not much like the sixties as it really was (or so we are taught, anyway; I wasn’t there), but it’s refreshing none the less. The film knows how to laugh at itself, and it is populated by big screen caricatures, but none of them are being used to run down a particular minority.
Technically, this film is more ‘60s than films from the actual ‘60s. It’s easily the most stylish film to hit the screen for a couple of years (no surprises with Ritchie at the helm), with the glossy, saturated colours of this film’s ‘60s Europe brining this glamorous world to life. The art direction deserves all the awards ever – the period setting appears to have been no problem whatsoever, and it looks utterly, utterly beautiful. The cars, the interiors, the clothing, everything. It’s a work of art. Ritchie emulates the popular split-screen technique that was fashionable for montages in the 1960s, and uses it so cleverly that at one point both my sister and I (with whom I saw it) simultaneously dropped our jaws. To be honest, we were doing that throughout. The film just has so many pleasant little surprises, and winks at the classics of the genre, that it is impossible not to smile profusely whilst watching it.
Musically, there’s clear homages being paid to 1960s soundtracks, especially the work of Lalo Schifrin, with bongos, harpsichord and hammered dulcimer making prominent appearances. The classic theme from the TV series makes but a tiny appearance on a radio, which was one of the few disappointments for me. The soundtrack is peppered with soul/blues/jazz classics contemporary to the film’s setting, and it makes for a good listen out of the cinema.
If you don’t know what a hammered dulcimer is, here is a topical example.
The instrument is often used by composers to emphasise foreign exotic locales, especially ‘oriental’ ones.
I’m worried that I may be wrong about this film – mainstream critics haven’t been especially enthusiastic about it – but everyone in our theatre seemed to enjoy it, and there was plenty of laughter at the requisite moments. It’s notable that this is a reboot of a TV series, but no-one is complaining about that. Obviously reboots need to be good, like this one, or people notice. And incidentally, the trailers do not even remotely do it justice.
There is certainly room for one or two sequels after this first entry. It’s clear that Ritchie is angling for this, and Cavill and Hammer have both expressed enthusiasm to return. Fingers crossed – I already wanted to see it again after a mere 20 minutes, so a good sequel would be a lovely bonus. I loved The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and I heartily recommend it to you.