Remember Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" franchise? Ritchie, a British director known for his laddish, pulpish sensibility, tried to sex up the Victorian-era sleuth by casting a roguish Robert Downey Jr. in the role and plopping him into big, blockbuster-caliber plots. The odd mix of gaslit ambience and elaborate technology worked only middlingly well, and Ritchie's series now seems stalled after two movies.
Ritchie takes another crack at a possible franchise with "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," a big-screen adaptation of the secret-agent television show from the mid-1960s. This time, however, there's no update, no twist. Ritchie's "U.N.C.L.E." is a faster, funnier, snazzier version of the Atomic Age series, and it works like a charm.
Henry Cavill ("Man of Steel") trades his Superman spandex for the bespoke suit of Napoleon Solo, a suave but distinctly American version of James Bond (whose creator, Ian Fleming, helped develop the original show). In the film's thrillingly implausible opening car chase, Solo is nearly killed by a hulking Russian, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, "The Lone Ranger").
The two enemies will reluctantly join forces -- oh, the Cold War irony -- to stop a cabal of former Nazis from building an atomic bomb. Crucial to their plan is Gaby, an East Berlin car mechanic played by Alicia Vikander ("Ex Machina"). Elizabeth Debicki is the film's chilly villain, Victoria Vinciguerra.
Ritchie's script, written with Lionel Wigram, is all fluff and nonsense, but the director knows that style sells -- and boy, does he sell it. "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." is bravura filmmaking from top to bottom. The kinetic camerawork, snazzy period outfits and ear-grabbing soundtrack (a mash-up of flute-driven jazz and Italian pop) all add up to pure pleasure.
Much credit also goes to Ritchie's actors -- especially Cavill -- who bring warmth to what could have been merely arch-humored archetypes. Look for Hugh Grant as Waverly, a character from the original series, whose presence is one of many clues that "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." will return.