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Movie Night – 'Man from Uncle' is spy caper from past (Aug. 26, 2015, issue)

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is the latest in what seems to be a never-ending stream of spy movies. Rather than being set in present-day, the Guy Ritchie-directed caper takes place in Europe in the height of the Cold War. The only aspect of the movie that distinguishes it from other films in the genre is its suave, sophisticated style.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is the CIA’s best agent in Europe in the early 1960s. Solo was once a soldier in World War II. Following the war he remained in Europe and became one of the world’s most notorious thieves. Until he was captured by the U.S. government and given a choice, work for the CIA or spend the rest of his days in a prison cell. Solo chose the CIA and quickly became its most valued asset.
Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is the best KGB agent ever fielded by the Soviet Union. He has a temper that tends to get him in trouble and causes him to have fits of rage. But Illya is big, with the strength of two normal men. He never gives up and he never fails. That is, he never fails until he is unable to stop Solo from extracting Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) out of East Berlin and over the Berlin Wall. Solo and Illya despise each other.
The powers that be at the CIA and KGB learn of a plot by rogue Nazis who did not surrender at the end of the war to construct a nuclear warhead. The CIA and KGB both believe that Gaby’s father, Udo (Christian Berkel), is assisting the Nazis. The CIA and the KGB hatch a plot to team Solo and Illya together to find the Nazis and stop them. They must work together to prevent a total Armageddon. Their only lead to locating the Nazis is Gaby herself. They believe they can use her to find her long-estranged father.
Solo and Illya mix like water and oil. Solo is smooth, dapper, and sophisticated without being flamboyant. Illya is large, powerful, and completely uninteresting. Solo completes his missions like a surgical instrument, while Illya overpowers his enemies with brute strength and determination. Solo is a precise weapon where Illya is a blunt instrument of war. The two must somehow find a way to work together or both of their countries may fall.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a good old-fashioned spy caper. The façade of the movie is executed with perfection. The locations (Berlin, Rome) and the 1960’s style are unforgettable. But those things are window dressing compared to plot, action, and good acting. Cavill, Hammer, and Vikander all play theirs parts with a certain panache. Elizabeth Debicki is excellent as the evil Victoria Vinciguerra. The problem with their roles is that they weren’t given much of a script to work with.
I love a good spy movie, the James Bond and Jason Bourne films are two of my favorite movie franchises. The problem with “U.N.C.L.E.” is that it doesn’t add anything to the genre. Its claim to uniqueness appears to be the fashionable and hip styling of the characters and scenes. In fact, the movie tries so hard to be cool that it ignores two staples of a good spy film: plot and action scenes.
The entire movie is light on storyline. The entire basis of the story is that Solo and Illya must come together to stop a mutual foe despite their hatred for one another. The whos and wheres and whys of the plot are only an excuse to pit Solo and Illya against each other, and against the Nazis at the same time. A better story with better action scenes would have made a world of difference for “U.N.C.L.E.”
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E” is neither particularly great nor particularly terrible. The movie is okay, better than many movies but nothing to write home about. If you enjoy old-fashioned spy stories you will most likely enjoy “U.N.C.L.E.” Otherwise, wait for James Bond’s “Spectre” or Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies,” two spy thrillers due out later this year.
Grade: B
Rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity.