Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t bear much resemblance to the original. What it lacks on that front, it makes up for with plenty of panache and a sense of style which anchors the film in the 60s. Younger audiences and Ritchie fans will lap it up. Fans of the TV series might feel their memories have been hung out to dry – and curl up with a box set of the original.
Whatever tough-guy notion of 1960s masculinity Robert Vaughn and David McCallum once embodied as reluctantly paired Cold War rivals has clearly gone the way of the Berlin Wall in the otherwise retro-flavored “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a PG-13-rated loose-nukes caper whose target audience is too young to remember the classic spy show that inspired it — much less the once-frosty deadlock between American capitalism and Soviet communism that pits its distractingly handsome leading men against one another. Starring Henry Cavill as American art thief Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, Guy Ritchie’s latest feels more suave and restrained than his typically hyperkinetic fare, trading rough-and-tumble attitude for pretty-boy posturing.
Its Cold War Europe setting is less about paying homage to its vague influences (including Ian Fleming and John le Carré) and more of an excuse to embrace old-school city-hopping larks and sharply-suited 1960s adventure. It’s all pulp and no politics. This “U.N.C.L.E.” prefers to giggle where the new-school James Bond would grimace, and to deliver a hearty backslap where le Carré would shoot his doomed characters in the back. It’s not quite teasing or knowing enough to be a spoof, which is lucky, as that old schtick can get tiring very quickly. But it’s not far off. This is a film that’s one step from winking at you mid-scene.
The nostalgia here isn’t for the “U.N.C.L.E.” TV show so much as a dated style of movie-making and also movie-watching — Ritchie’s film wants to remind you, albeit with a little scattering of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'” visual spins and snaps, that the pillowy pleasures of an old-fashioned spy or wartime movie can still thrill in the superhero age. It succeeds admirably on its own terms — more so, I think, than his two Sherlock Holmes films — and while it never really transcends pastiche, its ambitions don’t lie in that direction.
Ultimately, the actors find the right balance between committing to the material and acknowledging that none of this is to be taken too seriously, and the steady parade of 1960s hats and high-tech and Euro-pop singles makes “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” a breezy cinematic distraction that never pretends to go any deeper than its television roots.
In terms of design, it’s nothing short of marvelous. It’s a shame most of the chase sequences and the force-fed romance between Hammer and Vikander doesn’t have any of this pizzaz. Inasmuch as you can leave a movie saying “man, those props, costumes and credits sequences were terrific,” you can call “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” something of a minor success.
Ritchie needs to pull out all the stops considering the fact that his screenplay — which he co-wrote with Lionel Wigram (two others are also credited for the story) — consistently dampens the fizzy fun. Solo and Illya are meant to be a study in wry contrasts — the American is a sophisticated, witty ladykiller, while the Russian is introspective, humourless and awkward around women — but their snide jabs quickly become perfunctory. This is the sort of movie where, invariably, life-or-death chase sequences are punctuated by glib one-liners as bullets fly in all directions. Plus, the actors play their characters like glum spy-movie clichés rather than lovable archetypes. Cavill has a debonair grace — he embodies the suave spirit of a natural cat burglar — but he’s essentially Bond without the killer rejoinders. As for Hammer, he’s a good sport, flaunting a knowingly thick Russian accent, but it’s an imitation more than a performance. Their elegant suits are more distinctive than they are.
There’s some nice early-’60s period production design and the whole thing moves along smoothly, if unhurriedly. But it never delivers anything like the punch of Tom Cruise’s M:I adventures, nor the wit and distinctiveness of 007. And the two male leads, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, are fantastically dull and uncharismatic, with all the sexy danger of a pair of M&S men’s underwear models, easily upstaged by their cheerfully pert co-star Alicia Vikander. And in fact all three are entirely outclassed by an airy cameo from Hugh Grant as the dry British intelligence chief Waverly, giving one-and-all an object lesson in scene-stealing.
Little White Lies
Like a live-action “Lupin the III” that so desperately wishes it could be a cartoon, Ritchie’s film is a groovy piece of jazz that’s hopelessly in search of a decent rhythm. Solo, by far the best character here, is emblematic of a movie that is all mood and no meat. Riffing on the broad-shouldered boy scout charm he brought to Superman in the wretched “Man of Steel,” Cavill delights in playing the super-spy that James Bond hopes to be when he grows up, but his bluster isn’t enough to overpower the dull dialogue that Ritchie and Lionel Wigram’s script forces into his mouth. Hammer, meanwhile — the Boris to Cavill’s Bullwinkle — is playing a Cold War stereotype written in sky writing.
As U.S.-Russian relations go, so, apparently, goes the temperature of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” which means that this big-screen revival of the once-hot TV series of the mid-1960s is being served lukewarm. Set during the Cold War and stoked by seductive settings and an equally attractive cast, this would-be Warner Bros. franchise starter gets everything about half-right; conceptually it’s got a few things going for it and it’s not unenjoyable to sit through, but, at the same time, the tone and creative register never feel confident and settled.
Director Ritchie’s routinely overboard kinetic bombast plays as delightful company to this small-scale chase sequence, which launches Cavill, Teller, and Hammer through practically hand-drawn alleyways of a USSR-occupied Germany. All the while, Cavill’s silver tongue seems to insist that gravity is the last thing on this movie’s mind. With all fronts united in the name of giddiness, Ritchie manages a promising first act. But at the whim of the action movie formula, and ostensibly nothing else, priorities shift as the story carries forward. When we’re asked later on to attend to escalating stakes and a dimming tone, we’re simply left wondering what happened to all the fun.