REVIEW SUMMARY: Guy Ritchie’s big-screen take on the classic spy-fi series never fully engages due to a lack of chemistry between its leads and a surprising absence of the director’s signature flourishes.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Thief-turned-CIA-agent Napoleon Solo and KGB strongman Illya Kuryaken join forces with the daughter of a missing German scientist to uncover the criminal organization attempting to proliferate nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War.
PROS: Good soundtrack by Daniel Pemberton; clever title sequence that outlines the history of the Cold War; good period details and settings; well-executed escape from East Berlin at the movie’s opening.
CONS: Ritchie’s flat, subdued direction; uninvolving characters, with a lack of chemistry between the leads; routine spy shenanigans.
One seldom attends a movie directed by Guy Ritchie expecting restraint. In almost every movie, from the dizzying crime comedy Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels to his steroid-infused take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, the English filmmaker showcases a vision so relentless that viewers require a regimen of amphetamines washed down with a case of Red Bull just to keep up, the buzz often lingering unpleasantly like the junk ingested by William Lee in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.
So it comes as something of a shock that he exercises incredible restraint in his feature-length adaptation of the classic spy-fi television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., to the point that it seldom feels like a Ritchie movie. It’s a welcome relief in some ways. By reining in his often-frenetic energy with something a little more subdued, he turns in an effervescent picture with style to burn. And brilliantly it burns for a while; but when the glow dims, a mediocre and unmemorable picture remains.
At first he gets several things right. Set in 1963, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. opens with a breezy title sequence that lays out the history of the Cold War (though it jars a bit to think that contemporary audiences need such a lesson) before dropping in on East Berlin, where Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), an ex-thief now employed by the CIA, attempts to extract auto mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from the Iron Curtain in order to learn the whereabouts of her father, a missing German scientist. They attempt to escape but find themselves pursued by Illya Kuryaken (Armie Hammer), a KGB agent whose strength equals Solo’s supposed charm. They succeed in crossing the Berlin Wall (in a sequence that zips along with a deft touch amid Daniel Pemberton’s memorable soundtrack), only to learn from Solo’s handler Sanders (Jared Harris) that they will search for Teller’s father with Kuryaken’s assistance, in an agreement with the Russians. The opposing agencies have linked Teller’s father to a criminal organization intent on proliferating nuclear weapons, and want Solo and Kuryaken to stop whatever scheme they concoct. The investigation leads the trio to Italy and a party hosted by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), who may in fact be masterminding the proliferation. The British Secret Service’s Waverly (Hugh Grant) rallies them into service as undemanding and toothless set pieces (a raid on a warehouse; a car-and-motorcycle chase to capture a nuclear weapon) progress.
It’s standard secret agent fare, and the screenplay (written by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram) plays things by the numbers, taking away what name it might have. It tries to meld the sensibilities of serious spy thrillers by Charles McCarry with the more vivacious entertainments of Ian Fleming (who had a hand in creating Napoleon Solo), thus contributing to a schizophrenic relationship between the tale and its manner of telling. Ritchie’s action sequences never kick into high gear, the adrenaline pace drowned by odd reverence and respect. Conversely, the intrigue suffers from too light a touch, thus generating little suspense. This indecisiveness stretches to its tone; by turns serious and comic, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. never settles on what direction it should take.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. should benefit from its characters—the series was at its best when Solo and Kuryaken played off each other—but their one-upmanships never quite work because neither Cavill nor Hammer generate the required chemistry. Cavill’s Solo lacks charisma, while Hammer plays Kuryaken somewhere between oak and pine. The screenplay bestows them with unnecessary backstories that obstruct their interaction—wise, perhaps, given how flat they are when sharing the screen. Even the leads never generate much interest, with Grant dialing down his typical charm to fit into the worsted suit of an unremarkable bureaucrat (yet cannot help but try to play Waverly as George Smiley with a twinkle in his eye) and Debicki’s Vinciguerra the least fatale femme ever to grace the annals of spydom. Vikander receives the most fully written character, but unfortunately dips into cliché far too soon.
At times The Man from U.N.C.L.E. offers glimpses of the movie it might have been. It takes great pains to make the viewer believe the picture takes place at the height of the Cold War, from Cavill’s suits to Vikander’s dresses to Hammer’s Beatle bangs, and seems at peace with its period, and occasionally elicits a smile with a few clever quips. But it never erases from memory either the original series nor Matthew Vaughn’s equally vapid yet far more visceral Kingsman: The Secret Service, released earlier this year. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. takes its name from a classic, but it reveals itself as a very distant relative.