Spy Guys

Henry Cavill Armie Hammer in The Man from UNCLE

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is more than a reboot, it’s a guy’s guy love story. British director Guy Ritchie pours his liking of sexy, tough-guy camaraderie and brutal violence into this flashy retro film version of the '60s American TV spy series.

Ritchie’s own code of cool — impassioned masculine professionalism — flows between American CIA agent Napoleon Solo (dark-haired Henry Cavill) and Russian KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (blond Armie Hammer) as they come together to save the 1963 world. Each man is a high-style figure of '60s Cold War sexual tension. Their code acronym (United Network Command for Law Enforcement) could as well suggest LBGT broad-mindedness.

Even though there’s a woman in the plot (Alicia Vikander as the daughter of a former Nazi rocket scientist possibly building a nuclear bomb to the advantage of either East/West governments) her frumpiness in mod clothes exposes Ritchie’s preference; she only gets in the way of Solo and Kuryakin’s erotically coordinated chic:

Solo’s neatly-parted and Kuraykin’s deeply-parted hairstyles mean more than politics. Their first aggressive encounter is a car chase courtship — a motorized do-si-do — where the two agents thrust and parry through dark Berlin streets testing their cunning, agility and prowess.

Consider their Heimlich maneuver: After joining forces, Solo saves a drowning Kuryakin by coming up from behind. It is an intimate rescue and Ritchie’s coyness is daring. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is loaded with gay sexual innuendo, including several tearoom jokes: In a green public urinal, Solo jests “Anything in particular, or are you just looking?” Even Kuryakin has “a bit of fun with three Italian boys in the men’s room,” with flirty-eyed Hammer coming out on top — and still dapper.

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Ritchie’s earlier films (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) were unsatisfying imitations of Tarantino sadism. Now he’s gone from QT’s facetiousness to Bond movie panache. His thug-love always had unmistakable homoerotic appeal, peaking with Gerard Butler, Idris Elba , Mark Strong — along with Tom Hardy as memorably gay Handsome Bob — in the Brit crime farce RocknRolla. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. takes it further. Cavill’s dark, comic sternness resemblance to Sean Connery suggests the ersatz Bond movie that the American U.N.C.L.E. TV series intended. This is almost good enough to be the sequel promised by RocknRolla.

Ritchie’s gay fantasy drives the routine action. (“Take it like a pussy,” Solo reminds Kuryakin to keep his mild-mannered guise.) The main pleasure is watching Cavill and Hammer’s suave seriousness; they’re like action figures on a catwalk. At a couturier’s salon, they match Dior to Patou. Look how firmly Cavill’s lats are sheathed in a fitted white shirt and his rump fills a pair of tailored gray silk pants. Hammer wears a cap dashingly, his Russian accent has romantic warmth, and his proletarian pose is confirmed by impressive physical attributes. (“You’re shaped like a power lifter not an architect,” Kuryakin is told.)

More watchable than Ritchie’s tiresome Sherlock Holmes series where Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law whored themselves and bored us, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. gets its momentum from Solo’s cool and Kuryakin’s restless, almost sexual, neurosis. The men play Cold War sexual détente while Ritchie’s violent disposition beefs-up the spy vs. spy formula. (That Solo and Kuryakin’s often seem as lethal as Leob & Leopold shows real limits to Ritchie’s hooligan notion of gallantry.)

Several parallel, split-screen action contrasts hint at bi-curiosity but the comparisons run too long and the action editing gets wearisome. Still, the '60s retro (shot by John Mathieson with nighttime luster and daytime lushness) is snazzier than TV’s Mad Men and the gay-phobic The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Ditch the woman, Ritchie implies, and let the men get on with the spy reboot of a gay Bond-lover’s dream. Cavill and Hammer’s partnership, each man appreciating another’s strength and elegance, enlivens The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — sort of like one’s own “funny uncle.” 

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is in theaters Aug. 14. Watch the trailer below:

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