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Stylish action in “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” retro spy caper

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (Rated PG-13)

The sixties, which to this day generates feelings of nostalgia for what many view as the coolest decade, enjoyed a long run of spy capers that might have been, in certain ways, the antidote to anxiety about the tensions underlying the height of the Cold War.

Early in the decade, James Bond, the suave, cool superspy, made his debut with “Dr. No,” quickly followed by “From Russia with Love,” “Goldfinger,” and an endless stream of 007 adventures.

Less serious efforts mimicked the Bond popularity, with James Coburn as master spy Derek Flint and Dean Martin as secret agent Matt Helm.

Like James Bond, both Flint and Helm, exuding sixties cool, were popular with the ladies.

The spy business was not confined just to the big screen.

Of course, there was the hugely popular 1960s television series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, which has now been adapted by director Guy Ritchie for a fresh take on the stylish spy genre.

Set in 1963 at the height of the Cold War, Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” developed as an origin story, centers on the seminal yet reluctant alliance of two agents on both sides of the Iron Curtain given the mission to stop a mysterious international criminal organization.

Henry Cavill’s debonair CIA agent Napoleon Solo, dressed in a natty suit, is first seen crossing Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin.

His mission is to extract the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to infiltrating the criminal organization.

Armie Hammer’s rough-edged KGB agent Illya Kuryakin, a volatile yet loyal soldier for communist Russia, has also been sent to East Berlin to snatch the same vital German asset.

When Solo and Kuryakin first meet, they are trying to kill each other.

Meanwhile, in an exciting, breakneck, winner-take-all street chase, Solo makes his way to the free world with Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a whip-smart East German auto mechanic who is the estranged daughter of Dr. Udo Teller, once Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist.

The German scientist has gone missing, presumably now in the clutches of the secretive criminal cabal, which happens to be organized by neo-fascist Italian heiress Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), an attractive ice queen who looks like a model in Vogue magazine.

Given the high stakes of dealing with a rogue terrorist group with Nazi ties, the Soviet and American agents are forced by their handlers to work together to find the missing scientist and avert nuclear disaster.

Sworn rivals, Solo and Kuryakin vent their national and professional antagonism in a bare-knuckled, bust-up-the-furniture fight designed to convey in no uncertain terms that they might be stuck with each other, but they don’t have to like it. 

What results from lingering hostility is a strange sort of buddy movie, with Solo as the suave and often self-serving agent (we learn that he was an art thief after World War II, then given a job in the CIA rather than jail time).

Solo’s background sounds very much like the premise for Robert Wagner’s thief-cum-agent Alexander Mundy in the late Sixties TV series “It Takes a Thief.” Both Solo and Mundy are the sophisticated playboy types.

For his part, the petulant Kuryakin, faithful foot soldier for his authoritarian homeland, deals awkwardly with his newfound role of cooperative spy, and yet he manages to pretend to be an architect engaged to Gaby as a cover when they arrive in Italy.

Using his playboy charm and skills as a thief, Solo gets close to the villainous Victoria, finagling his way into her exclusive party held during an auto race where her husband (Italian actor Luca Calvani) spends his time mostly on the track.

In the hands of Guy Ritchie “The Man from U.N C.L.E.” proves to be an interesting and entertaining summer action film.

As a director, Ritchie has an interesting career, starting with great crime films “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.”

More recently, Ritchie directed the acclaimed blockbusters “Sherlock Holmes” and “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”

However, he is not immune to bad judgment; while married to Madonna, he co-wrote and directed the execrable “Swept Away” for this then-spouse.

Fortunately, the director knows how to stage impressive set pieces and thrilling action sequences where the stunts are remarkably striking in their execution. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” has plenty enough of both.

The best of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” involves many moving parts, from the chemistry that develops with the trio of Gaby, Solo and Kuryakin to the sometimes playful, lighthearted tone where humor is an important ingredient.

The film is also visually dazzling, where the setting of 1963 appears so authentic that the scenic locations in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” are indistinguishable from the style of the predecessor movies and TV shows that were actually filmed during the sixties.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

 

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 26 July 2015 01:49 )

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