Warner Bros., out now
The CIA’s finest must team up with the KGB’s best to defeat a threat that could destroy both their countries…
Okay, let’s get this out of the way straightaway: this isn’t The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as envisaged by Sam Rolfe (and Ian Fleming to an extent) back in the day. At first glance, this is a reboot with no links to the original version, save the names of the characters and the acronym. Does that mean it shouldn’t have used the U.N.C.L.E.name? That’s debatable – it’s a movie that’s strong enough to stand on its own without that brand recognition (if indeed it is recognised – certainly in this country U.N.C.L.E. hasn’t been around, bar a very occasional rerunning of the movies on satellite channels, for a few decades). However, the odds of something getting a green light without that sort of link seem low nowadays…
Actually, it’s being a bit unfair to separate them so completely. For a large part of the time, I can see Robert Vaughn playing the Napoleon Solo of this incarnation – they’ve given him an interesting backstory (more Hustle than U.N.C.L.E. ironically – and those in charge of The Saint reboot could do worse than take notes), and Henry Cavill has a similar suavity. However, the Illya Kuryakin of the 60s (David McCallum) is a gentler soul than his counterpart – you can’t quite imagine Jill Ireland’s daffy character from the first season of the show inviting this Illya to a party! Waverley as played by Hugh Grant is much younger (and check the closing credits for some very surprising past misdemeanours) but, much as I enjoyed Patrick Macnee’s performance in The Return of… in 1983, I’d rather have Hugh Grant’s character in charge of the nascent operation.
Setting aside links to the past, how does this stand up? The answer is surprisingly well. The East Berlin escape at the beginning is well-told (albeit with some liberties taken over the way the Wall was constructed), and a number of the action sequences are done with fine tongue in cheek style – some have complained at Napoleon’s “snack break” when Illya is still in peril, but it’s the sort of stylish interlude that sets the film apart. There’s a torture sequence that feels a little out of place, but it sets up one of the blackest of the jokes in the film. The period setting hits the right notes and there’s even what feels like a cheeky link to the Bond saga with a certain Count getting beaten up by Illya a couple of years before his encounter with 007 at Shrublands. Cavill and Hammer have a good rapport, as does Vikander with both her male co-stars independently and together.
Purists can (and will) moan about this, but director/writer Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram have gone back to the basics: how and why would an American and a Russian work together so easily at the height of the Cold War? The answer is a highly entertaining movie that I hope is rewarded with a sequel – and much as I loved Daniel Pemberton’s score, I hope next time round he can incorporate some of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme in the way Joe Kraemer did with Mission: Impossible for Rogue Nation.
Verdict: An entertaining fresh look at the Cold War. 8/10