In a world gone mad for superhero movies, what chance does the light spy caper have? Audiences will put total faith in a guy wearing a red metal suit, but the soft woolen folds of the bespoke kind barely register. When a whole city can be blasted to smithereens thanks to special effects, a picture that’s actually shot in Rome doesn’t hold a candle. Are modern audiences ready for the stylish, artfully ridiculous delights of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which features beautiful human beings wearing fabulous Kennedy-to-mod-era clothes as they discreetly saunter — or dash via motorboat — from palazzo to racetrack to five-star hotel? Not even the sophisticated body of intelligence collected by my canniest operatives can predict for sure.
But The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — director Guy Ritchie’s first film since 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows — may be the summer movie we didn’t know we were waiting for. Though it’s made with lots of modern tricks and technology, it’s old-fashioned in the best sense, and not just because it’s set in the Sixties. The picture is a riff on the Cold War-era TV show about two spies from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain — nattily suited Napoleon Solo and turtleneck enthusiast Illya Kuryakin, played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum — who team up to crush enemies of world peace. There’s also little doubt that the movie was conceived to cash in on Mad Men mania: One of its three stars, Alicia Vikander (who played Ava, the bewitching A.I. girl in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina), sports a wardrobe sent straight from Courrèges heaven, including a faint-worthy silver-and-white metallic coat-and-minidress combo.
Beautiful clothes are, of course, low on the fanboy priority list. But what about beautiful people? Once we’ve lost our taste for that, movies really are finished. There’s so much to look at in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that Ritchie himself — who made his name with brash gangster films marked by frenetic, razorlike cutting — appears to have slowed down a little in order to take it all in, and maybe he’s come to care more about faces, too. We meet Solo, here played by Henry Cavill, first: It’s 1963 Berlin, and this man of mystery, all cleft chin and Heathcliff cheekbones, pops over to the East to confront a saucy auto mechanic, Vikander’s Gaby — forced to slide out from beneath the car she’s working on, she’s like a smudgy, annoyed Athena. Gaby’s estranged father, it turns out, was “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist.” Not even his second favorite! Solo needs to get Gaby to the West for reasons that will become clear later, though as you can probably guess, they involve the usual efforts to foil some baddie’s plot to activate nuclear warheads.
Meanwhile, Soviet spy Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) has been charged with preventing Solo from whisking Gaby to the far side of the Wall: The resulting car chase is Solo and Kuryakin’s first encounter, their meet-cute, even though they don’t come face to face until a few scenes later. A salty higher-up (played by Mad Men vet Jared Harris, who carries the DNA of his late father, Richard, in the rusty purr of his voice) informs them they’ll have to work together, and they eye each other like dual birds of prey. Solo, at least, can be cool about it; Kuryakin has a long, troubled history as a hothead. He’s no more pleased when he’s forced to pose as Gaby’s fiancé in order to infiltrate the fortress of scary power-diva Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), an icy villainess decked out in an assortment of giallo-worthy jersey dresses and sweeping capes. (Here’s where costume designer Joanna Johnston gets a Bellissima! shout-out.)
For all this visual splendor and energy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. isn’t a completely graceful picture: Ritchie just doesn’t know when to quit, which means we get multiple endings when, really, just one would do. And he can’t resist his trademark trick of showing us the thing that happens and then backtracking oh-so-cleverly to show us how it happened. (At least he’s good at it.) But the cutting isn’t as crazy-fast as usual; it’s as if for once he wants actually to see what’s going on. In that sense, U.N.C.L.E. shows a lovely lack of desperation. Some of the action sequences are extraordinarily ambitious, and Ritchie (along with cinematographer John Mathieson) pulls them off: My favorite involves a truck and a speedboat — together. There’s some crisp stunt driving, shot well: We’re actually given time to take in two speeding cars sidling up to each other, swerving in tandem like crazed tango dancers. Ritchie also has some fun with geometric, Mondrian-style wipes and split-screen effects: You could call them gimmicky, but they perfectly suit the movie’s style and tone, the visual equivalent of a cigarette case’s satisfying click.
The key, though, is that the actors are part of the fun and not just an afterthought. (Action-movie culture has practically rendered them superfluous, like mini-people populating an architect’s rendering just to show scale.) Cavill may not be the most relaxed actor, but here his buttoned-up dignity works. He’s particularly suave in a party scene where Solo, formerly an art thief, relieves the women of their jewelry, invisibly, just because he can. Hammer’s Kuryakin, with his dashing, intentionally phony Russian accent, is the more soulful of the two, and not just because of his haunted past: Obedient and patriotic, he comes from a place where every i must be dotted, every t crossed, which makes it all the more delectable when his humanity cracks through.
Vikander, with that glorious, Sobranie-and-cognac voice, rounds out this alluring threesome — she has a bit of the sultry determination of the young Jeanne Moreau, though she’s not nearly as fierce. Most remarkably, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is unapologetic about the sexual current crackling between all three of its leads. The flirtatious homoerotic banter between Solo and Kuryakin is so blatant as to be unmissable, and why shouldn’t it be? If only more straight men could acknowledge the beauty of other men. Even male movie critics, who should know better, often stumble awkwardly when it comes to appreciating the allure of male actors. Early on, Solo and Kuryakin bicker on the floor of a tony Roman clothing boutique, arguing over just what sort of outfits Gaby should wear in her new life as a spies’ accomplice. Solo is sure he knows best — “You can’t put a Paco Rabanne belt on a Patou,” he tells Kuryakin testily, though in the end, you can guess who has the better eye.
Still, Vikander and Hammer get the movie’s sultriest moments: Bored in the fancy Roman hotel room she’s sharing with Kuryakin — they are, after all, posing as an engaged couple — Gaby tries to entice him to dance. He won’t — don’t ask him. Kuryakin is all business, even when the song that’s beckoning is Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” If he won’t dance, Gaby proposes devilishly, then perhaps he wants to wrestle? The ensuing tussle involves more headlocks than lip-locking, but Gaby has had a little too much to drink, and she poops out first. Kuryakin scoops her up gently and carries her to bed. “Good night, little chop-shop girl,” he says softly in his moose-and-squirrel accent. It’s enough to make any girl cry U.N.C.L.E.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Warner Bros. Pictures
Opens August 14
Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, and Jared Harris.