Adopting a deliciously groovy vibe, Guy Ritchie turns the iconic 1960s TV spy series into a flashy action-comedy. There's absolutely nothing to this frothy romp, but it's packed with hilarious characters and lively action scenes that continually surprise the audience with inventive twists on the genre. And it just might turn the suave, fast-talking Henry Cavill and the brooding, engaging Armie Hammer into A-list stars in the process.
It opens in 1963 East Berlin, where ex-con CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is trying to help sexy mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander) escape to the West, chased by his nemesis, KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer). Gaby's father is a nuclear scientist on the verge of selling his secrets to a rogue Italian billionaire couple (Elizabeth Debicki and Luca Calvani) so, even though the Cold War is raging, the CIA and KGB decide to cooperate on the mission. This means that rivals Solo and Illya must work together as they travel to Rome with Gaby, making contact with British agent Waverly (Hugh Grant) and Gaby's creepy uncle (Sylvester Goth). And of course, there are unexpected wrinkles along the way.
As always, Ritchie cleverly subverts each set-piece, letting chase scenes unfold in carefully staged but enjoyably inventive ways, often putting the real action in the background while the characters act as if they're above all this nastiness. As popcorn entertainment, this is first-rate, with a cast that's more than up to the challenge. Cavill is particularly smooth, a Bond-style spy who seems unable to resist seducing every pretty woman he meets. Hammer's role is pricklier, since Illya never quite relaxes, although his petulance makes him just as likeable. Their interplay is snappy and often very funny but, unlike Ritchie's similarly toned Sherlock Holmes movies, this strains to avoid being a bromance. Solo and Illya continue to spy on each other right to the end, maintaining their Cold War distance even as they team up to save the world.
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James and Anne's wealth affords them life's finest luxury accoutrements (residences in both London and the country, fancy cars, servants), but restlessness simmers underneath this apparently cheery, perfect veneer, with Anne soon catapulting their domestic bliss into chaos when she begins a torrid affair with William. When a mysterious Range Rover runs down Maggie's husband, Anne and William come under suspicion for the murder from both the police and James, the latter of whom endeavors to protect his wife (and, equally as important, his own reputation as a big-time barrister) by helping to cover up her possible role in the crime. Fellowes wastes little time on mystery, however, as his prime preoccupation is the method by which relationships crumble due to tragedies both big (the hit-and-run death) and, just as vitally, small (James and Anne's lack of warmth, inability to communicate, and joint desire to sweep unhappiness under the Persian rug lest it disrupt their comfortable existence). And with Anne unwilling to cast aside her youngish paramour to return to her husband, the film quickly becomes a case study in people's inability to fully suppress their most urgent desires and discontent.
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Hurt, as usual, pulls out all the stops on his vaguely pathetic, vaguely lovable role -- a stuffy gent who becomes inexplicably obsessed. The beginning of the film traces De'Ath's introduction into modern life, necessities generated so he can expose himself to Ronnie's work via VHS. He freeze-frames a locker room scene, listens intently for cheeseball lines like, "You're nothing but a skid mark on the underpants of life!" Finally he opts to move to Long Island in the hopes of encountering Ronnie face to face (along the way he rather humorously learns the difficulties of trying to get around suburban America by foot).
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Jarman keeps the language but takes the story out of its 14th-century timeframe, fills it with anachronisms, presents it with minimal sets against a black background, and turns it into a furious rant against the homophobia of the Thatcher-era England of the '80s and early '90s. Though Marlowe wrote a gay subtext into his play, Jarman moves it up front: Edward is gay, he gives too much power to his gay lover, and they both have to be destroyed before things get out of hand.
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