Have you noticed that the past is effing everywhere? Especially at the movies. Look at The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a moldy 1960s TV series that comes to the screen with no Mission: Impossible update or makeover. That’s right — it’s still moldy. But in a good way. Mostly. Director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes) is dishing out the same Cold War spycraft audiences ate up when James Bond was a pup. The TV series was so hot that Sally Draper was seen masturbating to it on Mad Men. Will today’s Sallys be turned on? Ritchie tries his damnedest, having to stay in period (the film is a prequel to the TV show) but juicing up the action, sex and silliness.
It’s tricky, navigating the casting of CIA agent Napoleon Solo and his KGB counterpart Illya Kuryakin, roles memorably created on TV by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, respectively. Studly Brit Henry Cavill, the latest Man of Steel, who takes on Ben Affleck’s Batman next year, plays Solo with a devilish 007 charm that’s closer to George Lazenby than to Roger Moore. But the dude can fill a tailored suit and launch insults like verbal missiles. His chief target is Kuryakin, played by L.A. homeboy Armie Hammer, who was so good in J. Edgar and as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network that no one blames him (that much) for The Lone Ranger. Hammer does a nice job spoofing Kuryakin’s accent and stiff upper lip. And he and Cavill, set up as rivals, bromance their way through the global spy collective of U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement), under the bemused leadership of Waverly (a hilariously deadpan Hugh Grant). Top-secret and all that.
The script, cooked up by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, is the usual save-the-world affair, involving a global crime syndicate and, luckily, two delicious babes (excuse the sexism, but it’s the Austin Powers Sixties). Aussie knockout Elizabeth Debicki plays Victoria Vinciguerra, the evil one (you can tell by her lacquered hair and nails). And that stellar Swede Alicia Vikander is Gaby Teller, the sweet one. Or is she? Vikander, the sexbot in Ex Machina, is having a hell of a year. And you can see why. Gaby isn’t much of a part, but Vikander makes her a live wire. Her impromptu dance with Kuryakin that ends in a wrestling match is, well, something to see. So is the movie, when Ritchie ignores the tangled story-line and goes for pure escapist retro fun. Note to millennials: No one stops to text or take a selfie. You’ve been warned.