Everyone has their trigger words. “Fiancé” is mine.
Don’t get me wrong; I love my wife, and I love being married, but we did not enjoy being engaged. We are not patient people, and engagement is all about patience — a waiting game, a high-stress period between one phase and the next, filled with frustrating politics, unnecessary bickering, and — worst of all — the label of “fiancé,” among the most pretentious words in the world. Say that word around my wife and I, and witness the twitch of despair as we return to the dark time.
That’s an oddly personal, over-sharing way of saying that I found myself back in the dark time when Armie Hammer first says the word “fiancé” in The Man From UNCLE, not much more than 20 or 30 minutes into the movie. It was a tiny twitch, nothing big enough to break me away from how much I was enjoying Guy Ritchie’s latest movie — but still, a twitch.
When the dreaded F-bomb appeared again, the twitch became more of a squirm. Deeper and deeper into the spy thriller, the more and more the bombs were deployed, and the further into my seat I sunk. Hammer, we have a problem.
But it’s my problem — an admittedly weird and picky problem — and not the movie’s problem. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I could not penalize Man From UNCLE over a stupid word, not when it has so much else going for it: an insanely charming cast, stylized action, a slick and suave 1960s aesthetic, you name it. In fact, not only did I get over my fiancé phobia, I actually started to appreciate the concept.
To set things up, Man From UNCLE, based on the 1960s spy series, focuses on two agents — America’s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russia’s Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) — forced to work with each other, despite their countries’ differences and their own interpersonal pettiness, for a common goal: stopping terrorist Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) from arming her organization with a nuclear missile. In order to pull off the operation, Napoleon and Illya must work together with Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of the German scientist responsible for building Vinciguerra’s bomb.
That’s where the whole “fiancé” business comes up, as Illya and Gaby fake an engagement to get closer to the Vinciguerra group. After getting over my own personal history with the word and concept, I allowed myself to get swallowed in the vortex of Illya and Gaby’s charming courtship, fictional at first but deeply endearing as the movie moves along. A lot will be made of Cavill and Hammer’s relationship in Man From UNCLE, but more appreciation needs to be heaped upon Hammer and Vikander’s work as Illya and Gaby, one of the best action movie romances in recent memory.
Of course, there’s a reason why Cavill and Hammer are getting to receive most of the attention. As Napoleon, Cavill plays a former convict converted to the American cause, becoming the nation’s most successful and prolific agent, while still taking time to appreciate the finer things in life — passionate overnight trysts with beautiful strangers, a glass of wine along with a scrumptious sandwich in the middle of a firefight, and some decadent home cooking after a long night evading a Russian spy. (And no, he is not paid enough for the truffles in his risotto.)
As Illya, Hammer is more “it” than “man,” a ticking time bomb of hard-knuckled fury waiting to blow. But beneath his easily enraged giant-with-a-firearm exterior, Illya suppresses a softhearted soul, a sensitive side that’s more responsible for the outbursts of rage than anything else; poke too hard at his daddy issues and you’re bound for a beat-down.
Napoleon and Illya’s courtship, from reluctant allies to inseparable work spouses, is one of the great pleasures of this summer blockbuster season.
Individually, Cavill and Hammer are excellent as Napoleon and Illya, both of them more than worthy of holding their own action movies without the other. But with the other, they’re unstoppable, a veritable Superman and Batman of the espionage world. In fact, while you’re not supposed to talk about Hammer and Cavill’s chemistry (that’s their trigger word, apparently) they are nevertheless something of a dynamic duo; Cavill is Superman, obviously, and Hammer was this close to playing Batman in Justice League: Mortal, once upon a time. This is the closest we’re going to get to Hammer’s Dark Knight teaming up with and against the Man of Steel, and we’re all better off for it.
While it’s Illya and Gaby who exchange the term “fiancé” back and forth, The Man From UNCLE is just as much if not more about the engagement between Illya and Napoleon. They come from opposite worlds with feuding agendas, ready to kill the other during their first meeting without an ounce of hesitation. By the time the movie ends, their worlds have merged, and the thought of harming one another is almost unthinkable. (Almost.) Napoleon and Illya’s courtship, from reluctant allies to inseparable work spouses, is one of the great pleasures of this summer blockbuster season.
Combine Hammer and Cavill’s on-screen ease with delightful performances from the supporting cast. Vikander is particularly great as Gaby; Her Risky Business-inspired dance scene would have been very surreal in the alternate universe where Tom Cruise didn’t drop out of the movie. Add in the beautifully realized fashion and feel of the sixties, and the playful way in which the secret agent action unfolds, and there’s no way you can walk away from Man From UNCLE without declaring it a winner, trigger words be damned. Indeed, even with the fiancé of it all, Man From UNCLE kept me engaged throughout.
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