Cards on the table up front: I was very fond of the 1960s TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. And watching director Guy Ritchie’s new, expensive, glossy reboot of the classic spy caper, I found it hard to banish all thoughts of the original.
I have mixed feelings about this new incarnation but, knowing that distance lends enchantment, it seems only fair to concentrate first on its virtues. It’s a good-looking, stylish, fast-paced thriller with plenty of sly wit interspersed between its action scenes. Ritchie and his co-writer Lionel Wigram have wisely made no attempt to modernise the story – like the TV series, it’s set in the early 1960s, and the shadow of the Cold War looms over the entire story.
Of course it must, otherwise the story makes no sense. Suave American spy Napoleon Solo, played by Henry Cavill, must join forces with his counterpart on the other side of the Berlin Wall – the stern Russian operative Illya Kuyakin (Arnie Hammer) – to hunt down a missing nuclear scientist, now probably working for a fascistic Italian billionaire who wants to corner the market in nuclear weapons and rule the world. The Americans and the Russians can agree on one thing only – this must not happen.
So far, so improbable, but there are pleasures along the way. The scientist has a fetching daughter (played by the versatile Alicia Vikander), who Solo tracks down to a garage in East Berlin where she works – implausibly, it must be said - as a mechanic. This is where Solo and Kuryakin first meet – they’re both tracking her down to get to her father. There follows a terrific car chase through the city’s streets before an uneasy stand-off – the two men’s first realisation they have to settle their differences and work together.
Infiltrating the Italian magnate’s world involves the two agents immersing themselves in high society – a plausible excuse for scenes set in five-star hotel rooms and other glamorous locations. Vikander also gets to model some costly, groovy 60s' clothes.
Along the way, there are some brilliantly staged action scenes. At the end of a deadly chase, a truck falls into water with its driver at the wheel. The cameras follow it down; there’s a misty, almost surreal air to these underwater shots – especially as they are accompanied by a gorgeous period Italian pop ballad, which makes it all feel almost operatic. As yet another chase progresses, the action goes split-screen, with as many as five incidents being played out simultaneously. Ritchie certainly doesn’t hide his sense of style.
But his talent for character development is another matter. Cavill and Hammer don’t really ignite as this odd couple. Cavill, who is British, would certainly make a more than passable James Bond; he can convey nonchalance, and has a talent for delivering a knowing double entendre. But he doesn’t quite ring true as an American - and in a story set in an era of Cold War detente, that’s a problem. As for Hammer, he does his best to appear humourless, dour, and clumsy around women - but again, I’m not quite convinced by his Kuryakin, who seems to exist mainly as Solo’s exact opposite.
All of which brings me back to the original TV series. I imagine it would look pretty clunky if viewed again today, yet the casting of its two leads was sheer genius. Robert Vaughan was a sensational Solo – handsome, witty, insouciant and charismatic. As Kuryakin, David McCallum had a shy, vulnerable quality which made his character both lovable and intriguing.
Cavill and Hammer do a workmanlike job, and look good in the expensive suits they’re given to wear, often in unlikely situations. But they don’t quite command the story as they should.
Instead, it’s left to two minor characters to walk away with the best moments. Icy, slender Elizabeth Debicki radiates pure malice as the tycoon’s daughter; you feel like hissing at her as if she were a pantomime villain.
And lastly, who’s this cropping up every now and then, stealing all the best lines with panache? None other than Hugh Grant, looking a little leathery as Mr. Waverley, from British naval intelligence (a role played by Leo G. Carroll in the original series). He becomes the spy boys’ boss and gleefully snatches all the best lines: “For a special agent, Kuryakin,” he drawls, “you’re not having a very special day.” You’d swear these scenes were written with Grant specifically in mind.
Without giving anything away, the final scenes leave the possibility of a sequel or two wide open. Will Cavill and Hammer be reunited on screen? We shall see. On this evidence, I wouldn’t quite rule it out.