Spy remakes are a dime a dozen, especially those mined from the world of the small screen. 1998’s The Avengers, starring Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes, was an attempt to adapt the successful British TV series of the same name, but flopped at the box office. Ten years later, Get Smart was revived as a film with Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway, but performed only moderately better. Even the wildly popular Mission: Impossible franchise, which has now become a vehicle for Tom Cruise to try to maintain his relevance as an action star, began as a television show (not to mention a revival series with a mostly different cast).
Next to all of these, Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may not appear that impressive. At the very least, it seems redundant. But closer examination unearths a hidden gem among other reboots that have tried and failed to capture their audiences’ nostalgia-driven excitement. The reason The Man From U.N.C.L.E. succeeds is that it excites viewers with something new, not something inspired by the old.
What makes The Man From U.N.C.L.E. work is that, frankly, you don’t need to be all that familiar with the original television show. Having that knowledge in your back pocket gives you a sense of the basic premise (two operatives from rival espionage agencies are forced to work together in the name of international cooperation, or something along those lines), but even if you’re going into it fresh, the movie doesn’t make it difficult to figure out the story. Almost all the classic narrative devices are there: the friends-to-enemies trope, the unrequited sexual tension that later blossoms into requited-but-forbidden, the familiar pretending-to-be-marrieds trick, the femme fatale who deftly seduces our reckless hero. Mix that with a boatload of humor, masterfully edited action sequences, and an unmistakable nod to the mod era of '60s fashion and you’ve got the apparent makings of success.
In fact, one of the most maddening aspects of revisiting this film two years later is how it struggled to succeed at the time of its 2015 release—especially in light of its cast. Henry Cavill, who had fallen short of getting roles in many of the biggest franchises of the time (Harry Potter, James Bond, you name it), had finally secured a place in the pantheon of actors who have played Superman over the years with 2013’s Man of Steel. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. could be perceived as a step back, but actually watching the movie unearths something that Cavill is undeniably in possession of here: charisma. As CIA agent Napoleon Solo, Cavill combines charm with comedic timing in a way that makes him the appealing hero and narrowly avoids crossing over into cocky asshole. It’s almost closer to Bruce Wayne than Clark Kent. It’s a side of him we haven’t really seen since he played Charles Brandon on Showtime’s The Tudors, and while he’s dipped into the softer side of Superman more recently with 2017’s Justice League, if you want an example of peak Cavill as the kind of leading man we always knew he could be, look no further than this film.
Cavill’s cohorts may not have been as well known, but if you study most of the movie posters that were released, there’s one actor who shares an equal presence with him on every single one. Armie Hammer had also experienced a unique career trajectory prior to being cast as KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin. After his unanticipated success depicting both of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, he seemed to hop around from film to film, testing out different character roles like the charming prince and the masked hero as if to see which shoe best fit him. Turns out the part Hammer was best meant for was stone-faced serious straight man to Cavill’s smooth spokesman. Ilya isn’t loquacious, nor is he intended to be, and most of the time he doesn’t utter a line above a certain baritone register — but those times when Solo gets under his skin, his uncharacteristically long-winded responses are played for comedic purposes. Any film that spends several minutes on a scene where two men over 6 feet tall argue about women’s fashion is one worthy of attention.
Hammer’s power in the role is derived significantly from his physicality and his size. His strength is linked to his hair-trigger temper, which results in violent outbursts that he typically directs at objects and the occasional nameless thug. He definitively dwarfs his co-star (and eventual love interest) Alicia Vikander, and U.N.C.L.E. plays on that in what has become one of their most memorable scenes together. When Vikander’s Gaby Teller gets drunk and invites Ilya to dance with her, one thing leads to another and their growing tensions culminate in them wrestling in the hotel room, knocking over lamps and chairs as their play-fighting escalates. Yet there’s no concern that she’ll come to harm, even in spite of the fact that Ilya practically triples her in both height and weight class. The movie gives Gaby her own power in her smallness, making her spry and quick where Ilya is broad and tall — and at the climax of their entanglement, it’s Gaby who winds up on top.
Considering Vikander’s ascension to roles of an even higher profile — including an updated version of video game heroine Lara Croft in 2018’s Tomb Raider — The Man From U.N.C.L.E. makes for a fun reexamination. In terms of character traits, Gaby Teller could be the predecessor to Croft in a lot of ways. When we first meet her, she’s halfway under a car, covered in grease and oil. Minutes later, we learn that she’s not only good at fixing cars; she knows how to drive them too, and leads Ilya on a merry chase while Solo is trying to extract her from East Berlin. A lesser spy movie would make her the target of sexist jokes by her male partners, or the unwitting participant in an ego-driven rivalry for her affections. Neither Ilya nor Solo puts Gaby on a pedestal, or objectifies her in any way. Instead, Gaby and Solo come to rely on each other as grudging friends, while her relationship with Ilya evolves from two people pressed together in a desperate situation to simmering sexual energy underlined with respect. Gaby is usually one of the only women in the room, but there are many times when she winds up calling the shots or sticking up for herself—and by the end of the film, one has the impression that if she asked Ilya to jump, his only response would be to ask how high.
The film’s respect for its female characters is glimpsed in how it handles not only its heroes but its villains, too. When Solo’s superior Sanders gives him the rundown of their target, a quick summation of exactly who they’re up against, the expectation would be that they’re dealing with a wealthy businessman-slash-Nazi-sympathizer who wants to provide the fringe fascist element with their next nuclear weapon. Instead, the real mastermind of the film is not a man, but a woman: Victoria Vinciguerra, who has taken over the family business in her father-in-law’s stead. Her husband Alexander, whom she married in order to gain access to his financial assets, is little more than a playboy prop; Victoria, however, is the “lethal combination of beauty, brains, and ambition,” according to Sanders. He’s not wrong, either. Elizabeth Debicki brings the glamour to her performance as Victoria, but she pairs it with an imposing stature — she’s actually taller than Cavill, and when wearing heels gains several inches on him besides. All of that serves to make her more than merely the temptress to be tricked into bed, as so many other spy films would relinquish her to. In fact, she’s the one who gets the upper hand on Solo, managing to disable him long enough to tell him her entire game plan (in typical spy movie villain fashion) but also to enable her escape. Her ultimate fate is ambiguous — the last we see of her happens seconds before a homing missile destroys her boat and seemingly takes her with it — so there’s the possibility for any potential sequel to resurrect the character in some small manner.
Therein lies the rub; it’s clear from the ending of the movie that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was intended to be a inherent springboard for a franchise — or, at the very least, a follow-up film. Because of its moderate performance at the box office, and because of its mixed reviews from critics, a sequel grows less and less likely by the year — even more so now that Cavill and Vikander have found themselves entrenched in bigger franchises. A script is supposedly being worked on by Ritchie’s co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram, but only time will tell if that script eventually becomes a movie. In terms of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s fanbase, however, that faithful following hasn’t wavered in the slightest. Thanks to the power of social media and word-of-mouth recommendations, the movie continues to find new fans in the two years since it originally came out in theaters, guaranteeing that the number of people clamoring for a sequel never really dies down if you know where to look. It’s possible that we’ll never get a chance to see The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 2 set in the strident '70s. But as a standalone film preserved in the amber of time, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. holds up.