I’ll admit I’ve never seen the spoofy 1960s spy show on which The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is based. The film version looks promising on paper. Director Guy Ritchie conjured up some freewheeling fun when he helmed the first Sherlock Holmes movie. The result does indeed look fantastic. Ritchie imitates the look of 1960s espionage thrillers, outfitting his terribly good-looking cast in Joanna Johnston’s so-very-chic costumes, shooting most of the film at picturesque locations in Rome, and having cinematographer John Mathieson mimic the saturated Kodachrome colors of those films. There’s just one problem: I still don’t know why the movie exists.
The action picks up in 1963, when convicted art thief-turned-CIA superspy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) spirits auto mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) out of Communist East Germany in the hopes that she’ll lead the Americans to her long-lost Nazi scientist father. Safely ensconced in the West, they’re none too happy to find out that the agency is forcing them to team up with Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), the KGB hardman who tried to kill them during their escape, to prevent a coterie of former Nazis from building its own nuclear warhead.
This cast sure is game for this jaunt. Cavill looks much more comfortable as this super-suave operator than he does as Superman, Hammer manages to find the humor in a stiff character with anger management issues, and the suddenly ubiquitous Vikander shows a propensity for comic petulance and mischief that she hasn’t displayed previously. On top of their work, the three leads receive capable support from the likes of Jared Harris as a tough-guy CIA handler and Hugh Grant as a British spymaster.
The thing is, a movie like this pretty much has to actually work as a spy thriller. The period re-creation and this cast aren’t enough, and the movie isn’t funny enough to succeed as a comedy, even though Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram have Napoleon and Illya get into a heated argument about women’s fashions early on. The villains (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debicki) are boring, and the plot is exactly the sort of thing that the Austin Powers movies were created to parody.
As an action director, Ritchie turns out to be off his game, too — the movie suffers in comparison with the current Mission: Impossible sequel or the similar Kingsman: The Secret Service. The car-and-motorcycle chase near the end is confusingly done, while the director gets too cute during the climactic showdown on the open sea. The only moment of real visual wit is during the speedboat chase when Napoleon falls off Illya’s boat into the water. The camera follows him as he swims to safety and calmly observes the rest of the lethal chase while enjoying a bottle of Chianti and an Italian pop song. It’s only here that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. achieves the insouciant, carefree vibe that it’s aiming for. If only Ritchie could have sustained that, this would have been a groovy piece of entertainment. Instead, it’s just forgettable
[box_info]The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Starring Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, and Armie Hammer. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]