Guy Ritchie is like a really good cover band. His movies are passable interpretations of the source material and often nearly reach the level of the original. His early efforts – Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch are still his best examples of this – two gangster movies brimming with energy and style. Each film however leaves you with the distinct sense of déjà vu. Maybe because when these films were released the originals had already come, gone and received their accolades. Those are of course Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – with Ritchie that’s an understatement. That’s not to say he lacks talent…mostly just an original vision. As he’s progressed in the Hollywood system he’s refined his craft behind the camera becoming a director who can imbue a film with style that can mask its lack of substance (see Sherlock Holmes.) Which is potentially why his new film – The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – is the perfect distillation of his talents. Ritchie is allowed to adapt a little known 60’s TV show and fill it with just enough energy, costumes and makeup to make us ignore the fact there isn’t a ton going on here.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is an American Spy. He’s found a niche in post-WWII Europe that allows him to pursue American interests while leaving him enough time to steal and sell relics from the art world. Solo is a quick-thinking, suave SOB who likes the wealth and influence of his lifestyle. His next mission – which he has no choice but to accept – is to track down a potential new threat. Who do you ask? Well, Nazi’s of course.
Nothing brings enemies together like the Nazi’s. Even in the 1960’s when evil has spread thin around Europe that word will allow any nemeses to join forces. Here is no different as Solo must track down a beautiful Russian mechanic called Gaby (Alicia Vikander,) whose father has been kidnapped and forced to help said underground Nazi’s finish their bombs.
After making contact with Gaby, Solo must partner with an unwelcome interloper. Russian KGB operative Illya (Armie Hammer) is the man for the job – and he’s not happy about it either. Illya doesn’t exactly appreciate the American influence in Europe but does love the motherland so with much hesitation the two join Gaby on a continental journey to find Gaby’s father and stop the Nazi’s plot for global destruction.
Ritchie and his co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram have a fantastic time developing the partnership of Solo and Illya. Both Cavill and Hammer seem to be having a wonderful time in the roles as well which gives the film a very nice momentum. Alicia Vikander – fresh off her breakout role in Ex Machina – is also stellar as the steely and resourceful Gaby. The trio give the film a strong central team that provide a strong foundation for the swirling visuals.
And those visuals are where The Man From U.N.C.L.E. shines. From the costumes (which conjure up memories of Mad Men) to the locations to the fantastic, reassuring camerawork – Ritchie is in his comfort zone. While his script is lively and fun it does wear precariously thin as the mystery is revealed but those visuals are so dense and gorgeous it diverts the need for any of this to matter much.
In the end U.N.C.L.E. may be the ultimate Guy Ritchie movie. It uses his powers of imitation by applying it to a property no one cares about or more importantly remembers. He still leans too heavily on his Tarantino influence but it doesn’t manifest here nearly as often. Instead this is a very fun late-summer diversion that falls somewhere on the spy spectrum between Daniel Craig era James Bond and Austin Powers. Sometimes at a BBQ in mid-August all you need is a band to play a passable version of a classic song – Ritchie has delivered that experience again at the movies and right now that’s more than enough.