Reappraisal: ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ is stylish, fast-paced fun
In 2015, director Guy Ritchie (“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”) released “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” a Cold War spy caper featuring Henry Cavill (“Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice”), Alicia Vikander (“Submergence”) and Armie Hammer (“Call Me By Your Name”) as a motley crew of international spies hunting for a missing warhead. The film seemed to be one nobody had asked for, adapted from a low-brow 1964 television series of the same name. What’s more, it opened just weeks after spy-movie blockbuster “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” As a result, ticket sales were less than spectacular. With tepid critical reviews, the film came and went as little more than a blip on the 2015 summer movie radar. Today the film remains one of the most underrated spy films to come out of the last decade, featuring dazzling stylization, irresistible cast chemistry and an electrifying soundtrack.
The spy flick was once a pillar of popular cinema: Filled with suave machismo, high fashion and exorbitant amounts of innuendo, the style of the classic spy movie is a cultural icon. Today, they don’t make spy movies like they used to; box offices are dominated by dark, gritty films like “The Bourne” series, and even the once-campy “James Bond” films now boast sleek, blue-tinted color palettes.
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is an homage to a bygone era of film. It doesn’t concern itself with deep, troubled backstories or a dark, moody aesthetic. The film meticulously recreates the style of the classic spy film, from its split-screen action sequences to its dramatic camera zooms. The film revels in this campy, carefree style with just enough modern flair to not feel dated. Critics panned the film for prioritizing style over substance, which it did. However, positing that criticism of this kind of film is like comparing Dr. Pepper to fine wine. The film wasn’t made to be deep — it was made to be stylish and fun, a goal it achieves in spades.
The cast’s chemistry, too, stands out as a highlight of the film that was largely overlooked by critics. Each of the main characters is likeable on their own, from Cavill’s suave Napoleon Solo to Hammer’s stalwart Illya Kuryakin to Vikander’s charming Gaby. Together, however, these three feed off of one another and create a cast dynamic that’s downright irresistible. The characters all serve as excellent foils for one another, such as in a scene where Illya sits in a hotel room and quietly plays chess with himself, trying (and failing) to ignore Gaby drunkenly dancing to Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” The interactions between the film’s main characters are repeatedly grin-inducing, and they're part of what makes the film as much fun as it is.
Speaking of “Cry to Me,” did I mention that this soundtrack is incredible? Because it is. Not only does the film sample numerous ’60s Italian pop classics (including one particularly memorable scene featuring Peppino Gagliardi’s “Che Vuole Questa Musica Stasera”), but it also contains numerous standout original compositions. A large virtue of these original compositions — composed by Daniel Pemberton — is how well they fit the action taking place on the screen. For example, during a car chase the engines may rev in unison with ripping electric guitar riffs, or the cars may bounce along a dirt trail to the beat of the soundtrack piece. This synchronization is subtle, but it lends the film a unique cadence that’s all its own.
It may not be a dramatic masterwork, but from my first viewing of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” back in 2015, I knew the film was significant as a tribute to the golden age of on-screen espionage, and all the bravado, style and campiness that came with it. It’s absolutely an imperfect film, and not one I’d ever try to pretend is flawless, but those flaws rarely seem to impact the experience of watching the film. Instead, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is the type of cinematic experience that thrills and entertains for every second of its 116 minutes.