It’s the Napoleon and Illya show.
That would be Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), men from U.N.C. … Actually, no. Not at first.
In fact, not until the very end of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” does writer-director Guy Ritchie connect the men with the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Before they get there, in the end credits, the initials associated with them are CIA (for Solo) and KGB (for Kuryakin). It’s 1963, you see, Cold War prime time and also the era of the super-popular spy series starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum that brought the world of James Bond-style derring-do to the small screen.
Ritchie’s retooling of the U.N.C.L.E. concept tells how these espionage adversaries first meet and are forced into an uneasy alliance to thwart a plot involving a loose nuke, an icy blonde and a leering Nazi torturer. Origin story! Now, before you groan, “What? Not another one!” know this: The picture is quite clever and light on its feet.
Cavill’s Solo is a dapper smoothy, always well turned out (early on, a character zings him as “Mr. Important Suit”) and ever so self-satisfied, with eyebrow permanently arched and a sly superior smirk always at the ready.
Hammer’s Kuryakin is the more interesting of the two (though his Slavic accent is dubious): tall, capable, super strong (early on, Solo notes with awe his ability to rip the back off a speeding car), hot-tempered and scornful of Solo.
Together, they spark off one another like a well-coordinated comedy team, which they kind of are, mocking each other’s spycraft and sartorial choices (“the bow tie doesn’t work with that suit’).
There is a woman, of course, a feisty beauty played by Alicia Vikander, who looks sensational in ’60s-inspired couture and is the men’s equal when it comes to delivering sardonic repartee.
The story, by Ritchie and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram, is a melange of espionage hugger-mugger with a zipline escape over the Berlin Wall along with car chases and shootings in lovely foreign locations (Italy, in this case).
Nothing much new here, but it’s all carried off by Ritchie with great visual verve (lots of split screens) and snappy dialogue.
Some of the best and funniest bits happen in the background of scenes: a comical dance routine by Vikander that’s reminiscent of Tom Cruise’s tighty-whitey boogie from “Risky Business”), and a sequence where Solo munches a tasty picnic-style supper, casually watching while a hot-lead boat chase with Kuryakin as the quarry plays out in the distance.
As the end-credit, U.N.C.L.E.-explicating sequence makes clear, the movie is basically a setup for a sequel. I wouldn’t mind seeing it.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander and Hugh Grant.
Director: Guy Ritchie.
Running time: 1:56.
Rated: PG-13, for action violence, some suggestive content and partial nudity.