This review contains spoilers.
“America teaming up with Russia—that doesn’t sound very friendly.”
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a 2015 reboot of the 1964 NBC TV series directed by Guy Richie (who previously wrote and directed the Sherlock Holmes film series a couple of years back). The retro-flavoured, stylish remake of the classic spy show reimagines the history of the Cold War by pairing up CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to dismantle a criminal organization lead by a Nazi sympathizer.
While the duo is forced to work together by their superiors, the competition between the two agents, who represent the two great world powers, continues. Solo and Kuryakin’s silly squabble over their fashion choice at a boutique, their skepticism about each other’s gadgets when attempting to break in to the villain’s shipping yard, and their eyes on the disk stored with nuclear bomb data—all of their comical interactions negate the political and cultural tensions that would otherwise have existed between the two. Indeed, the pair is an apparent mismatch, but Solo and Kuryakin turn out to be companions who oddly complement each other’s inadequacies. Solo’s suaveness and Kuryakin’s brute strength in the opening scene foreshadows the successful partnership of the two working together later in the film. The contrast between the characters’ personalities is explored in depth, and much of the film attempts to convince the audience that they can be made into good working buddies.
The movie is speculative and sci-fi-esque on some level: the cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviet during the Cold War is stranger-than-fiction and daring, but the odd duo’s combat against the ex-Nazi is rather familiar in terms of history. Sam Wolfe, the mastermind behind The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series from the mid-1960s, playfully twisted the looming hostility between America and the USSR, and transformed it into the most fantastical idea by having the ideological rivals work side by side. This could possibly be the biggest reason why the show still lives on vividly in the minds of our parents’ generation, and why it has received a modern revival.
Given the political tension of the Cold War, the 1960s theatre was riddled with spy-themed shows and films. James Bond, the legendary MI6 agent created by Ian Fleming, who remains the most iconic spy character today, is the epitome of sophistication. Bond is a lone ranger who kicks baddies’ butts with sass. On the other side of the world, Solo and Kuryakin struggle to get along with each other as they bicker about what Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the agents’ shared source of intelligence, should wear. But that does not make the duo any less capable than the British agent.
Although the men insist that they “work better alone” while on a mission to find traces of uranium at the shipping yard, the duo is in fact stronger together. Solo’s intelligence and Kuryakin’s strength, plus their unusual sense of humour, puts them on the same level as the legendary MI6 agent. However, there are moments when Solo’s American hedonism gives the audience the impression that he cannot get his priorities straight; it seems he would rather leave his partner than risk being gunned down by the security guards during the boat chase scenes.
The American and the Russian finally set aside their differences when Gaby, who is working to locate her scientist father who assists in the making of the nuclear bomb for the villain, is taken hostage by the enemy. She could be read as the bridge that brings the men together, but, for the most part, the men assist one another to take the villain down. Solo rescues Gaby from the crashed jeep and Kuryakin kills the already wounded villain who tries to strike the American. Solo locates Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), who is escaping on a boat with the warhead, via radio, and Kuryakin helps the British Navy fire the decoy that they stole from the villain’s compound earlier to destroy Victoria and the weapon simultaneously.
The bond between the two men becomes stronger when Solo returns to Kuryakin his father’s prized watch, which had been stolen in Rome. It remains unknown to the audience whether the men’s personal hostilities towards each other persist after the successful operation; the film makes a point that they can be good spy buddies, although they are, technically, ideological rivals.
Despite the film critics’ disappointments in the reboot’s departure from the 1960s TV show, Richie’s unorthodox brand of cinematography makes the story entertaining and captivating. He has successfully preserved the fantastical aura of the American-Soviet Cold War cooperation, and that is why the film is worthwhile.
-Contributed by Michelle Luk