This summer was full of men, many of them superheroes, all of them trying to save the world. There's a little of that spirit in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a tale of spy versus spy versus international criminal organization bent on procuring nuclear warheads. The movie was marketed that way, leaning into its James Bond/Captain America-esqe elements and focusing on its pomaded, square-jawed hero Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill).
In a Marvel or Bond movie, Solo would surely be the all-American brawler ready to pound faces and save the day. But director Guy Ritchie is less inclined to push the hero, and the film, down that path. Instead, what he's created in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a stylish, much-needed departure from the stone-faced seriousness of this summer's blockbusters — a charming, stylish stunner of a film that no one saw coming.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E wants you to remember how fun movies can be
What makes The Man From U.N.C.L.E so good is how much fun it has. It isn't concerned with being a great, sweeping film, nor is it tethered to some hulking franchise. Sure, there's a rather dour nuclear bomb threat at the end of this tunnel, but Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram are more concerned with floating the audience along on the bubbly journey it takes to get there. Even the action sequences are more concerned with style and humor than with violence.
The movie is based on the '60s television series of the same name, and pays homage to its source material with a cheeky self-awareness. I wouldn't call The Man From U.N.C.L.E. a true period spy-fi. It looks — chandelier earrings, tailored tweeds, oversized Jackie O' sunglasses, geometric prints, chunky eyeliner — like the later seasons of Mad Men, but it's more wry and more than willing to laugh at itself.
The rakish Solo and stern Russian agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) have to team up not only to stop an Italian crime mistress (Elizabeth Debicki) from inciting nuclear war, but also to help out the most stunning car mechanic in all of East Germany, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), along the way.
Cavill and Hammer are the film's most recognizable names, and the characters they play are departures for both. Cavill takes a break from playing the stern, overly serious Superman to crack (largely successful) one-liners as the dashing, bespoke-suited Solo. Hammer, better known for his Parent Trap-ish role as the Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network, has the more serious role, but it's no less comedic, with many laughs coming at the expense of Kuryakin's dry persona. Both Cavill and Hammer are game, showing off welcome facets of their acting arsenal that we didn't know existed. The two also share an irresistible chemistry.
While the male leads deliver strong performances and the best bromance of summer, the show really belongs to the film's women: Debicki and Vikander.
In the hands of Vikander, whom you might not have been able to shake since she was playing a sinister AI in Ex Machina, Gaby is an Imperator Furiosa dressed as Holly Golightly. Not just a damsel in distress, she gets to do much more than you expect (one of the refreshing ways the movie differentiates itself from heisty spy-fis like it). That isn't to say that she can't play charming. One winning scene she commands will have you Googling Solomon Burke's discography after the film ends.
Debicki's Victoria Vinciguerra is the polished, dazzling inverse of Vikander's Gaby. All eyeliner and blonde chignon, Victoria wants to start a nuclear war. But the true heist of the movie is Debicki's grand larceny of every scene she's in. Debicki displays a flawless command of both comedy and icy evil as the effortlessly chic Victoria. If there's one minor crime of the movie, it's that it gives too few moments to Debicki.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is good enough for a sequel. But it doesn't need one.
Toward the end of the film, Ritchie leaves the window open for a sequel. That isn't without merit.
His film is as good as the two blockbusters Marvel released this summer. I'd argue it's just as funny and heisty as Ant-Man and its sun-spun setting is more fun to look at than Avengers: Age of Ultron. The reason it works so well is that it feels like its own standalone thing, rather than being a cog in a franchise machine. For two hours, the film feels like a vacation. You don't need to think about future plots, a possibility of a solo Solo movie, or Gaby getting married when it's over.
But ultimately, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a perfect summer fling. And like all summer flings, there's no need to extend it.
Stories don't need sagas to be perfect. The magic in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. comes from its surprising bravery to go against the grain and its willingness to be a pocket of joy. It's proof to studios that in this age of sequels, threequels, and whatever comes after that (Infinity War?), you can still create something fresh and spry.
Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, this is not. There aren't any superpowers. There isn't a fight scene that will take your breath away. The actors in U.N.C.L.E. don't have the same bulky résumés. And there is (so far) no sequel I'm looking forward to the way I am with Captain America: Civil War or Infinity War down the line. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is not the action movie of the summer — but it's the one I enjoyed the most.