The cold war sure was cool. That's if you believe "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", which combines double agents and la dolce vita in a glossy but superficial 1960s-styled adventure.
"Sherlock Holmes" director Guy Ritchie resurrects the mid-1960s TV show in which American and Russian superspies set aside their differences to tackle more esoteric bad guys, pitting the new movie incarnations of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin against a pair of vengeful aristocrats and a lip-smacking Nazi torturer.
From the rubble of divided Berlin to the sun-dappled Mediterranean, from car chase to fist fight to inevitable double cross, everybody is immaculately coiffed and impeccably dressed in sharp suits, chic couture and signature sunglasses. With a soundtrack of cool jazz, smooth soul and jaunty Italian pop music, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." absolutely drips style.
Unfortunately, the laid-back, louche feel extends to the plot too. As the boss spy explains to us in the traditional spy movie briefing, our rival agents must team up to find an ex-Nazi scientist before bad guys can build a nuclear bomb. Or something. The story, such as it is, is entirely secondary to the parade of stylish outfits and equally stylish action set-pieces.
The obvious comparison for the movie's high-gloss action is the jet-setting James Bond. But Ritchie's take on "U.N.C.L.E." also recalls Bond rival Harry Palmer, the glasses-wearing, supermarket-shopping anti-Bond created by Len Deighton and played on the big screen by Michael Caine. Ritchie seems to be borrowing Palmer's backstory to reimagine UNCLE agent Napoleon Solo's less-than-salubrious past, and a scene in which Solo dons an apron and whips up a meal for Gaby harks back to a similar scene in Palmer's first big screen outing, 1965's "The Ipcress File".
"Ipcress" director Sidney J. Furie's off-kilter styling for "The Ipcress File" seems to have influenced Ritchie's take on the action too. In "Ipcress", one fight scene is memorably glimpsed through the glass of a phone box. While it's not as gloriously weird as "Ipcress", "U.N.C.L.E." takes a similarly imaginative approach to action scenes, employing techniques like split-screen and presenting an explosive boat chase from an oblique -- and hilarious -- point of view. One trick that is overplayed is a flourish of confusing and repetitive mini-flashbacks, but the opening car chase is a highlight. Ritchie eschews tyre-squealing cliché for a suspenseful game of cat and mouse, and when a traditional smashing 'n' crashing chase shows up it feels like we've temporarily ejected into another film.
British director Ritchie has been compared to Quentin Tarantino since the start of his career due to his snappy dialogue and swaggering crooks. Here he also shows a Tarantino-style magpie sensibility -- and not just because the movie holds more than one face from "Inglourious Basterds". The scenes in Italy borrow the style of Italian new-wave cinema -- 007 meets "81/2", if you will -- with shades of Italian spaghetti westerns in the action scenes and musical cues too. Meanwhile one rain-soaked fight scene recalls a samurai movie, while another chase straight out of "The Great Escape" suggests Ritchie is aiming for the cockle-warming feel of a bank holiday afternoon caper.
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As Clark Gable-esque American agent Napoleon Solo, Henry Cavill hoists an insouciant eyebrow and keeps it there. Armie Hammer looms comically as Solo's reluctant partner, KGB superman Illya Kuryakin. Both are square-jawed and impeccably put-together, but the film doesn't exploit their rivalry for more than a few light laughs.
While the boys are busy jutting their jaws at each other, the girl from UNCLE steals the show: Alicia Vikander's spiky, minidress-wearing mechanic Gaby drives, drinks, dances and deals her way through proceedings with more than her share of the humour and the action.
Of course she has to be rescued in the third reel, but it's refreshing nonetheless. Meanwhile Elizabeth Debicki is seductively slinky as the socialite villain -- surrounded of course by a private army of henchmen in matching jumpsuits -- but her steely mien ends up being too one-note to truly sell her menace.
Breezy and playful, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is all style and no substance, coasting on its imaginative action scenes and retro cool. We've had a decade of post-Bourne spy movies involving gritty realism and people looking worried in offices, but taken alongside this summer's " Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation", recent comedy "Spy", " Kingsman: The Secret Service" and the forthcoming " Spectre", which sees James Bond return to silly gadgets and a classic villain, it seems spies are fun again. While we've always known deep down that espionage is a pretty sordid affair, since Edward Snowden revealed how sordid and yet banal today's spy game is, perhaps we're once again seeking comfort in the myth of the stylish secret agent. As "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." shows, it's a fun fantasy but doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.