It would seem as though Guy Ritchie has been keeping a low profile since his last film came out in 2011. A sequel to Sherlock Holmes, Ritchie was experiencing a slight peak in his career after the former valley that was Swept Away (brilliant, by the way) and Revolver. RocknRolla, which came out in 2008, served to help resuscitate what was looking like a dying career. The release of a graphic novel called The Gamekeeper led to his partnership with Warner Bros. on Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, an auspicious business relationship indeed.
And now, after some of the fanfare surrounding his divorce from Madonna (is it a coincidence the film’s release is just two days before the pop star’s birthday–as though to say, “See? I’m still here, and I’m going to remind you on the worst day possible.”?) and marriage to model Jacqui Ainsley has subsided, 2015 seems the perfect time for Ritchie to get people focused back on what they began to notice him for in the first place: his films. The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a reworking of the 1960s TV show that aired on NBC, has proven Ritchie’s chance to show off his commercial and cerebral sensibilities.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, little recognized, but who has been in such films as Red Riding Hood and Whatever Works), a debonair Don Draper-type, is a soldier-turned post-war criminal-turned CIA agent who finds himself wrapped up in a tangled web of espionage at the height of the Cold War and associated fear of the atomic bomb. To help quell the crippling terror being built up by the arms race, Solo seeks out Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, who semi-recently appeared in The Fifth Estate), the daughter of Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a scientist formerly employed by the Nazis and, later, the U.S. who has figured out a way to simplify the process of constructing the atomic bomb, but who has seemingly disappeared “like steam from a kettle,” as Solo puts it.
Upon locating her at an East German chop shop where she works as a mechanic, Solo tells her of his need to locate her father and of the urgency with which they need to leave that side of the wall. She is forced to agree when a KGB agent, Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, now a Ritchie cast regular) tracks and follows them. Instructed by the KGB to stop Solo from aiding Gaby at all costs, Ilya is relentless in his pursuit, chasing them down in a car and on foot, but to no avail. Solo escapes with Gaby and brings her back to an apartment where other CIA operatives and bigwigs await, including Sanders (Jared Harris, who relishes taking on roles wherein he has to use an American accent), the head honcho who warns Solo to check his arrogant attitude lest he serve his sentence in jail instead of for the CIA (he was apprehended by them after getting caught for being a key player in the black market after WWII).
Solo is further rudely awakened when Sanders introduces him to his new partner, Ilya, the Russian man from the night before. Informed that the two will work together to help Gaby find Udo and to stop the atomic bomb formula from getting into the wrong hands. Their destination for the operation: Rome—proving, once again, Ritchie’s obvious affinity with the Italians (he is one of the few mainstream directors to portray the culture accurately, as in Swept Away, and without offense, so much as humor).
It is there that Gaby’s uncle, Rudi (Sylvester Groth), resides in the employ of Vinciguerra Shipping Company, an enterprise that deals in “shipping” (and arms, among other things). The Italian son who inherits the company from his father is playboy Alexander Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani), married to beauty and Cruella DeVil-esque mastermind Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki, an actress adding to the well-crafted theory that all Australian women are hot blondes). Suspected as being the ones who know of Udo’s whereabouts, Ilya and Gaby pretend to be engaged for the benefit of having an excuse to come visit Uncle Rudi, while Solo’s cover is as a specialist in Greek and Roman antiquities so as to ingratiate himself into Victoria’s good graces (the Vinciguerra family has one of the largest collections in the world).
With oil and water personalities and approaches to spy life, Solo and Ilya make an unlikely pair that allows Ritchie’s signature screenwriting style to take on its bantering and drily comical bent. Gaby, meanwhile, seems to be growing resentfully fond of Ilya, in spite of how disagreeable and hotheaded he can be. Their sexual tension mounts as she drinks most of a bottle of vodka in their hotel room one night and tries to dance with him, which then leads her to wrestle with him, proving her physical strength to be an equal match, which, in turn, piques Ilya’s interest in her.
The next day, the trio heads to an anniversary party celebrating Vinciguerra’s (a name that, translated, means “win war”) fiftieth year in business. To sneak into the party, Solo accidentally-on-purpose bumps into one of the guests on the way in, Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant), a snarky British man of dubious background. Although Grant’s role is somewhat minimal, he is able to deliver his most cutting lines (e.g. “Did you used to be a waiter?” and “For a special agent, you’re not feeling very special today, are you?”) with memorable aplomb.
It is at this point in the film that Ritchie’s distinct brand of unpredictability begins to come into play. Although he doesn’t quite break from the cliche of the spy/action movie genre, he does bring his own unique style to the plot points of act three, as well as the sequences involving high-tension (e.g. when Solo drives a truck into a sinking boat to save Ilya or when Solo and Ilya storm an island to take back the atomic bomb). And, best of all, Ritchie is able to work within the studio system–which obviously means sequel potential for this movie–and still manages to offer the profundity of a film like Revolver, as evidenced by the philosophical and Paul Thomas Anderson-ish quote, “Man only has two masters in this world: pain and fear.” And, in truth, this is the sentiment that encapsulates not just human psychology, but the entire crux of the Cold War.