In a normal year, it would be fairly easy to declare The Man from U.N.C.L.E. the best movie of the summer and let the cards fall where they may; but here’s the rub: Mad Max: Fury Road, which released mid-May, is one of the best action movies of the decade (and perhaps of all time), thus making a seemingly cut-and-dried decision a bit more complicated. Of course to directly compare Fury Road to U.N.C.L.E is—to borrow from the philosophical underpinnings of My Big Fat Greek Wedding— a bit like comparing apples to oranges; although both are fruit, you can’t substitute one for the other. Whereas the former film is gritty, heavy, and replete with adrenaline-fueled spectacle, the latter is a silky-smooth, playful, espionage-throwback good time. In short, I haven’t had this much pure, unadulterated fun in a theater since Guardians of the Galaxy.
The opening scene of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. introduces us to Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), a Bond-syle American CIA agent who is in 1960s Berlin to get person-of-interest Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander) out of harms way so that she can lead them to her father, who is thought to be building a nuclear bomb for a rogue terrorist group. They are chased by a Russian agent with near superhuman strength, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), but narrowly manage to escape. Shortly thereafter, Solo is informed that American intelligence is teaming up with Russia in order to infiltrate the network of this mysterious rogue agency in order to stop nuclear war and that he is being paired up with his nemesis, Illya. An elite team is formed: Solo is debonair and quite a gunman; Illya is know for his burly Russian physique and prowess in hand-to-hand combat; and Gabby is … well, she’s much more than a pretty face. Even though they don’t get along particularly well, the three of them set off to save the world.
The stellar performances by these three leads carry the weight of the film. Cavill is incredibly smooth and shows some of the personality that some claimed was missing from his Superman performance in Man of Steel. Hammer masters the thick Russian brogue, and his undeniable chemistry with Cavill makes for some hilarious back-and-forth banter; and after playing a terrifying android in Ex Machina, it’s nice to see Alicia Vikander flexing her comedic chops. In a way, she is the real star of this film.
A mishmash of 40s, 60s, and contemporary sound, the film’s score is, likewise, incredible and has the capacity to elevate the film as a whole in a manner reminiscent of Guardians of the Galaxy. One minute a Mediterranean rhythm keeps us on the edge of our seat, and another a stealthy synthesizer motif harkens back to old Bond films. Louis Prima even makes an appearance. In several moments, the music emanates from an on-screen source, the results of which are smart and hilarious. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also boasts a noir-infused color palate that solidifies its Cold War roots. In addition, several masterfully edited split-screen sequences also bring to mind an earlier decade of action cinema. Overall, the film is a throwback good time with a modern edge that you need to get yourself to the theater to see.
What then, are we as Christians—as readers of Reel World Theology—to make of this film’s levity and gayety? While I do, in fact, think there are some significant and serious themes in this film, it is important here to remember that, as N.D. Wilson points out, God made the platypus and is therefore okay with having fun. There is, perhaps, another time and place for a more serious discussion of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but let this suffice for now. Have fun at the movies.