Guy Ritchie’s reboot of ‘The Man From UNCLE’ – the 1960s spy TV series that no one under 50 will remember – has a sunny, tongue-in-cheek vibe. Its Cold War Europe setting is less about paying homage to its vague influences (including Ian Fleming and John le Carré) and more of an excuse to embrace old-school city-hopping larks and sharply-suited 1960s adventure. It’s all pulp and no politics. This ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ prefers to giggle where the new-school James Bond would grimace, and to deliver a hearty backslap where le Carré would shoot his doomed characters in the back.
A familiar story of spies, disloyalty, twists, double-crossing and a nuclear plot to destroy the globe, the movie hops from Berlin to Rome, taking in other scenic European spots along the way. Henry Cavill’s American spy and Armie Hammer’s Eastern Bloc stooge team up, with Alicia Vikander in tow as a fellow traveller and Hugh Grant and Jared Harris playing backroom puppet-masters. It’s not quite teasing or knowing enough to be a spoof, which is lucky, as that old schtick can get tiring very quickly. But it’s not far off. This is a film that’s one step from winking at you mid-scene.
All this charm is a little surprising considering that on paper its trio of leads, Cavill, Hammer and Vikander, feel as charismatic as cardboard. As it turns out, the two men have an especially sharp rapport, something Ritchie previously conjured up between Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law in his Sherlock Holmes films. You wonder if this is what Ritchie is best at now: period action bromances set in cartoon-like worlds just enough removed from our own so that he doesn’t have to bother with subtlety (meaning the mangling of accents, for instance, doesn’t matter). He’s still not great with women – Vikander is a fun presence but ultimately pretty marginal, and at worst, marginal and pretty.
This is far from perfect. A late scene referencing the Nazi torturer-surgeon Josef Mengele is weirdly distasteful. Also, the movie enters an annoying hyped-up phase late in the game as the action takes over. But ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ has enough style and smarts to make it an amusingly louche summer movie: a cultivated mix of action and wit, suits and cities, that feels refreshingly analogue in a digital world. The confidence of the final scene suggests there’s more to come too – which is more than fine by us.