Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a dizzying, sometimes silly, sometimes serious spy romp that goes down smoothly like a sip of iced tea on a hot summer day. Ritchie, well known for his crime comedies and two installments of the Sherlock Holmes movie franchise, reboots the old ’60s spy TV franchise of the same name, reintroducing C.I.A. agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin to a 21st century audience while keeping its feet firmly planted in the past.
The film begins in East Berlin, with a young auto mechanic named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl), whose father is a rocket scientist essentially abducted to work on a nuclear weapon when she was a child. Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, Man of Steel)—a gentleman thief coerced into the C.I.A. in order to avoid a prison sentence—has been ordered to extract Gaby and deliver her over the Berlin wall. Standing in their way is the mysterious, almost inhuman KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, The Social Network).
Illya and Solo engage in a dangerous, dizzying game of cat and mouse, winding through darkened streets, corridors, and, in one instance, through an elderly woman’s apartment as Illya attempts to keep the pair from crossing into West Berlin. Solo triumphs, safely squiring Gaby over the Berlin wall, leaving—he believes—Illya behind.
The American agent quickly realizes he won’t be able to put the Soviet spy in the past, however, when his handler informs him that the two are being forced to work together to defeat a common enemy: Victoria Vinciguerra. Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby) is intent on building a nuclear device and possibly igniting a third World War, and the United States and the Soviet Union have decided to come together temporarily to defeat her.
While the movie does nothing terribly new or innovative with the spy genre—there are some clever bits of filmmaking, though—its strengths lie in the relationships between the main trio of Solo, Illya, and Gaby, and what those relationships tell us about the characters.
It’s quite obvious that, at the beginning, Illya and Solo don’t like each other and barely respect one another, while Illya and Gaby are almost reluctantly attracted to one another. Over the course of the film, we watch these relationships blossom, turning from animosity and enmity to actual friendship and mutual respect. Illya, seen at the outset as an inhuman, almost monstrous figure, is humanized through his relationships with Solo and Gaby while Solo, a cad and playboy, allows himself to grow close to and actually come to care for two people who were unexpectedly thrust into his life.
The pretense of romance between Illya and Gaby never quite becomes more than just that; the pair have several near-miss scenes where they lean in to kiss and are interrupted before they can complete the act. Their last interrupted kiss, following a successfully completed mission, actually neatly leads into the film’s emotional climax, when Illya is told by his handler Oleg that Solo possesses a disk containing Gaby’s father’s research.
Illya is told to retrieve the disk and “kill the American, if you need to,” though the audience knows “if you need to” is only there for show; he won’t have a choice but to kill Solo if it comes down to it.
It takes several long seconds—all sound has been blotted out, but for the ominous chiming of bells in the distance—before we see the full effect of the mission on Illya’s face. A devastated Illya then reacts violently, obliterating his hotel room in a rage.
That Illya reacts with violence is nothing new; however, it’s the first time in the film that Illya reacts this way because he doesn’t want to commit violence. The previous few times we’ve seen him like this, it’s a precursor leading up to him committing violence.
It’s then that we truly observe the weight of these relationships—Gaby and Illya, Solo and Illya, the three of them together—particularly on Illya. The presumed loss of Gaby and now Solo have wrecked him. Then the film forces us to ask: is it enough? Has anything really changed? Will Illya actually go through with it?
Perhaps I’m giving Ritchie more credit than he deserves here but, deep down, this is more than just a silly summer spy movie. At its core, Ritchie’s U.N.C.L.E. is a movie about connections, relationships. It’s about what happens when those connections and relationships are choked off and starved, and how vital—and rewarding—it is when they’re finally nourished and nurtured.
I really enjoyed this movie, and will probably be posting some analysis of scenes at a later date. It wasn’t perfect, of course—I would have liked to have known a bit more about Gaby, and Victoria’s lack of a real motive irked slightly, though I do appreciate villains who are sociopaths for sociopathy’s sake—but it was still an unexpected gem (with gorgeous set pieces, costumes to die for, and a killer soundtrack to boot).
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. came out in 2015 and was directed by Guy Ritchie. It stars Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, and Elizabeth Debicki (with Jared Harris and Misha Kuznetsov in supporting roles). It’s now available to purchase on DVD and Blu-Ray. (If you buy a copy, they might make a sequel!)