Style over substance is usually a rote dismissal of either low brow or pretentious entertainment, but sometimes it can be a too – handy cant that overlooks a plain good old-fashioned romp – such an unfairly maligned film is Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The film, based on the T.V show of the same name, is set in 1963 (the year before the show aired) to of course set up the “how they met” inevitable origin story and potential franchise (our heroes don’t even officially become U.N.CL.E agents until Nina Simone gloriously sings “Take Care Of Business For Me” over an end credits montage). In this case, the idea works a treat as Henry Cavill’s urbane art thief turned reluctant CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cowboy, as his commie cousin calls him) butts heads, bickers and preens against Armie Hammer’s KGB man Ilya Kuryakin (Red Peril, back atcha, a chess playing pugilist with daddy issues) after Solo springs Alicia Vikander’s tomboy mechanic Gaby Teller from East Berlin. Thereafter, the three of them are forced to team up to save the world, natch, in a plot involving a criminal enterprise (the otherwise unnamed THRUSH – some things are just too silly to revive!), Gabby’s “Doctor Death” uncle, former Nazis and nuclear warheads. (Incidentally, in U.N.C.L.E lore, THRUSH was founded by Moriarity’s assistant, Sebastian Moran, after Moriarty plunged to his doom at Reichenbach Falls. I wonder did Sherlock Holmes director Ritchie know this before he took on the project?)
You might have thought Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films had killed the spy film stone dead a few years back with its gags at the expense of all the heretofore various silly tropes – EON, the James Bond producers certainly went the other direction with their deadly serious Daniel Craig reboot. But Ritchie isn’t having that. By going back in time (at one point, the film was to be set in the present day) he has opened a window on a 1960’s Europe that really only existed in the movies –elegant, breezy, super stylish, and colourful (apart from the meticulously realised concrete drabness of East Berlin) – think Charade, or Arabesque, only with modern CG and wire enhanced stunts replacing dodgy rear screen, plus snappy editing, and a breathless soundtrack and score by Daniel Pemberton that riffs on Ennio Morricone and Matt Munro-esque crooning.
“Saving the world in style” – too bad the inferior reboot of another ‘60’s telly staple, The Avengers, got that byline first. Ritchie’s posters have the less catchy “A Higher class of spy” which doesn’t really make any sense. No matter. Truth be told, the stakes don’t really feel that high, or barely register. We’re too busy drinking in the gorgeous clothes, stunning locations and fab parties, and grinning at clunky spy tech and repartee to be bothered with all that. As the reluctant agents are partnered up with each other at a West Berlin park café by their respective bosses who then stand to leave, the entire evesdropping clientele rise also – more spies like us. Even the action scenes have a playful thrust to them, with two absolute highlights – the aforementioned East Berlin extraction, and a lorry lunch stop-gap amidst a harbour-bound motor boat chase.
As Cavill’s insouciant Solo sidles back in the rear seat, guiding Gabby by map, the dogged Kuryakin pulls alongside their crappy commie car at the lights. Solo’s already cranked the window down a notch with his foot, and pops off two silenced shots at their cat-reflexed pursuer. This sets up a beautifully constructed chase that dances through pot-holed cobbled streets to the wall, and a zip-line escape over the minefield. Ritchie occasionally zooms in, but the action is logically constructed, easy to follow, and is allowed to breathe, even as the fluting score rasps like bursting lungs in the night.
“We tried a lot of different ideas over the big car chase that opens the movie and Guy felt [the sound] was too predictable,” Pemberton told UK Business Insider. “And then suddenly I did some work with this amazing flute player Dave Heath who normally plays classical concertos. I was like, ‘Show me the crazy noises you can make that no one lets you do.’ What he did I thought was really cool, so I started writing something around that sound, recorded it and Guy was really into that and it ended up being a big part of the sound in the film.”
Likewise, when the two men are now working together and seek to escape the baddies boatyard secret lab lair by motor boat, as the harbour gates close and an MTB blasts them, Solo (or should that be cowboy?) is thrown from their steed. As Kuryakin blithely evades pursuit, just watch Solo drag himself out of the water, flicking water from his soaked clobber, as if lamenting the forthcoming dry cleaning bill. As he enters a truck’s cab and locates the keys, he considers driving off, setting the radio dial. Then he uncovers the driver’s picnic hamper. As Italian diegetic crooning fills the cab and becomes score also, drowning out background bedlam, Solo casually tucks a napkin under his chin and wines and dines, while we are cleverly shown the action silently happening in front of him as he is reflected in the wing-mirror. Soon though, conscience takes hold and he drives the vehicle over the edge straight onto the villain’s boat, winds the window up, and seeks out his partner’s stunned body beneath the water with his headlights.
Another surprising touch is when Royal Marine Commandoes from HMS Ark Royal assist the spies in assaulting the villains island fortress. Ritchie subverts expectations of a large set piece by instead presenting it in split screen montage accompanied by Pemberton’s score. Cavill in fatigues, a beret and spraying a sterling machine gun pleasingly evokes memories of George Lazenby in OHMSS (Cavill once came close to being cast as James Bond himself).
The women are somewhat short changed with the emphasis on the male sparring, but playtime with them is no less enjoyable. Gobby Gabby is to pose as Kuryakin’s fiancé, and they share a sort of seduction /sumo wrestling knock-about in their hotel suite – amusingly, as the tipsy tiny dancer cajoles the Russian bear into a timid two-step, clapping his hands in time to the radio, she suddenly smacks him up the head with his own palm.
Elizabeth Debicki as Italian shipping heiress and Mussolini mega-fan villainess Victoria Vinciguerra, glides across the screen, draped head to toe in Valentino and pearls. The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin memorably described how as she monologues her Machiavellian plots, “her voice drops to a Shere khan-like register” – her face, perfectly made-up, essays absolute stillness, a delicious decadence of restrained deadly intent. Her playing off against Cavill’s own dry delivery is an absolute delight.
And who else could play Mr Waverley, their soon-to be boss, than Mr Urbanity himself, Hugh Grant? When you can’t get Cary Grant, he’s your man. I love how the end credit personnel files reveal how he is a former opium addict and alcoholic, who’s renounced his title. He gets one of the best lines too, as he breaks the bad news of the trios next mission in Istanbul (Gabby was always his agent) “You’ll need your curly-wurly shoes.” Carry On Spying, anyone?