‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ is the sort of movie that begs to be reviewed as “smart and stylish.” One out of two isn’t bad, one supposes, but there’s no way to really claim too much in the way of brains for this spy caper, very loosely based on the popular sixties TV show. That’s too bad. James Bond creator Ian Fleming was one of the show’s godfathers, and actually created the character of Napoleon Solo, originally played by the urbane Robert Vaughn. The new movie is directed by Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “RocknRolla,” “Sherlock Holmes”), so stylish goes without saying – but by Ritchie’s standards, this is a fairly restrained affair.
‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ doesn’t actually bear that much resemblance to the TV show, which featured the adventures of an American spy, partnered with a Soviet spy, as they foiled the evil plans of T.H.R.U.S.H., an international criminal organization bent on world domination. Other than the names of the main characters, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and Mr. Waverly (Hugh Grant), and Jerry Goldsmith’s original TV theme, little from the show has been retained.
That may not matter. The target audience is too young to remember the show, and the movie is going to have to draw them on its own. That, however, is a large question mark. It really shouldn’t have been. Ritchie is bona fide action auteur, and spy-fi has been a fruitful action genre for years. The action sequences in ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ are good, but pale in comparison to this season’s earlier “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the current release “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” Ritchie’s approach is oddly restrained here,even unfocused. Some of his musical background choices work well, some some are distracting, and the extended interludes of spaghetti western music just seem like an unsuccessful attempt at imitating Tarantino. A couple of attempts to blend humor into action set pieces, such as Henry Cavill relaxing with a commandeered lunch while Hammer is engaged in a furious speedboat chase and gunfight in the background, aren’t as funny as they should be.
‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ also features some of the worst, most distracting split screen sequences ever done. This deservedly reviled technique, a staple of the sixties and early seventies, reared its head on “24” but is generally shunned by modern directors for good reason. It’s damn near impossible to follow action effectively when several moving images are being shown side to side and on top of each other simultaneously. Ritchie actually and inexplicably undercuts a major action sequence by juxtaposing at least four night time shots. You see the problem. They’re not only on screen together but they’re all DARK. Hopefully he has it out of his system.
The nukes-on-the-loose plot is functional but familiar, and the script (by Ritchie & Lionel Wigram from a treatment by Ritchie & Wigram and Jeff Kleeman & David C. Wilson) is full of annoyingly anachronistic dialogue. Phrases like “High-tech,” “skill set” and “I’m outta here” were not around in the early sixties.
Cavill and Hammer present the most impressive display of on-screen beefcake in years, though this is seldom of any importance to the young male audience a movie like this presumably needs to cater to. That audience in particular may be put off by the movie’s none too subtle homoerotic overtones, although a verbal sparring match in which the two try to outdo each other in the field of women’s fashion is amusing.
What’s difficult to understand is why neither of these ϋber-impressive specimens (Hammer is six foot five, Cavill is six one), both of whom have starred in summer tentpoles before, make much of an impression here. The English Cavill, who managed an impeccable American accent as Superman, sounds inexplicably affected here. The American Hammer sounds adequately movie-Russian, but seems to be channeling Brendan Fraser, rather than the cool, ice water-in-his-veins Ilya Kuryakin played by David McCallum on the TV show. Jared Harris, as a crusty CIA handler, and Hugh Grant, making a belated but welcome appearance as U.N.C.L.E. chief Mr. Waverly, own their scenes.
Alicia Vikander, who made a huge impression earlier this year in “Ex Machina,” is also somewhat disappointing as the East German asset the boys are competing to extract. Although Ritchie goes out of his way to give the character lots to do – she’s clearly the boys’ superior when it comes to mechanical problems – she’s just as clearly a third wheel in this Cold War bromance. One suspects Ian Fleming wouldn’t have let that happen.
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is now playing at theaters across the Capital District, including the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX,” the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX,” the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX,” the Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland 6 in Schenectady, the Rotterdam Square Cinema, the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8, The Malta Drive-In on Route 9 in Malta and the Spectrum 8 on Delaware Avenue in Albany.