Beauty and brains in old-school spy caper

MEN ON A MISSION: Cavill (front) and Hammer play rival spies who must team up to find a missing nazi scientist. Director Ritchie's film pays homage to the 60s TV show it was based on, and vintage Bond films from the era.


    Aug 27, 2015

    Beauty and brains in old-school spy caper

    THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (PG13)

    Action adventure/117 minutes/Opens Sept 3

    The story:

    Central Intelligence Agency spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and secret agent Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) must work together to find Teller's nazi scientist father, who has gone missing.

    EVER since British director Guy Ritchie began his career with cult hits such as Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), he has become known for style rather than substance.

    Thankfully, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. isn't quite the Derek Zoolander of films. Not only is this energetic spy action comedy, to quote Zoolander, "really, really ridiculously good-looking", but it carries something of a brain as well.

    While the throwaway plot isn't smart enough to win any screenplay awards, it certainly has legs to carry the film's snazziness.

    Set in the 1960s, the film is built on the volatile chemistry between Solo (Cavill), a former con-turned-CIA spy, and Kuryakin (Hammer), a powerfully built KGB agent with temper issues.

    After starting on opposing sides in a sequence in East Berlin that feels like a love letter to vintage spy flicks, the two are tasked by their respective governments to work together with Teller (Vikander). The mission of this dysfunctional trio is to locate Teller's nazi father, a scientist capable of building nuclear weapons who disappeared after defecting to the American government.

    The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has a good, cheeky sense of humour and offers plenty of laughs.

    The very tall Hammer, who towers above even the Man of Steel, Cavill, makes for an interesting communist agent constantly struggling to contain his fury. Amusingly enough, any time he is close to losing control, he clenches his fists and hears the sound of a fast-approaching train in his head. I empathise with Hammer's character because the targets of his wrath often have it coming, though amusingly enough, sometimes they don't.

    Cavill, meanwhile, is a bit of a mixed bag. While his performance is effective overall, his attempts at appearing suave seem forced, often distractingly so. During a few scenes involving the British actor, I found it difficult to concentrate because he came across as an inadvertent caricature of a smooth agent.

    Thankfully, Vikander is quite engaging as a woman searching for her estranged father. The diminutive Swedish actress holds her own against the rather tall cast, which includes Elizabeth Debicki. It is unfortunate, however, that the film ultimately relegates her to a damsel-in-distress role.

    In typical Ritchie fashion, the real stars of the film are the sharp editing and kinetic camera work. Often, scenes are presented in multiple fast-moving panels, much like a graphic novel come to life.

    I also enjoyed how The Man From U.N.C.L.E paid homage not only to the 60s TV show it was based on, but also the vintage James Bond films from the era.

    What's more, the impressive costume and set design, coupled with the 60s soundtrack, make for some interesting production values. But the action scenes aren't quite as thrilling as they could have been, and seem to function only as placeholders for the rest of the film.

    As his two mediocre Sherlock Holmes films proved, Ritchie's style of film-making isn't suited to every film. However, he may have just found his kin in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.