Style is the name of the game for Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a flaring and cheeky take on the mid-1960s television series of the same name. The 2015 film has all the accoutrements of mid-1960s caricature, with the Ritchie and Lionel Wigram screenplay pushing the action with firm self-awareness.
The developmental course for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. began somewhere in the 1990s, with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh attached. Eventually, Ritchie came on board and the budget was set. Ritchie, who bounced away from such street-level thrillers as Snatch to broaden his take with the Sherlock Holmes movies, brings his sense of floppy cool.
CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is in charge of extracting one Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin circa 1963. He also has to avoid KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Eventually, it’s revealed that the three are expected to work together to bring down Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) and her husband (Luca Calvani) as they have possession of a nuclear weapon.
With the CIA and KGB working together to stop all-out nuclear disaster, Solo and Kuryakin have to overcome their differences. The Russian poses as the fiancé to Teller, whose uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) works for the Vinciguerras. And Solo tries to use his powers of seduction to involve himself with Victoria. His skills as a thief also come in handy.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is fairly typical espionage movie stuff, with lots of twirling fight scenes, swift car chases and pretty romps. But Ritchie directs things with a wink, which suggests a constant state of smug cleverness. This sets up several indulgences, like when Rudi is brought in to torture Solo and the audience is treated to a blaring musical montage of the tormentor’s previous exploits.
Solo is impossibly cocksure and Cavill plays the part well, drifting out long-held words with a playful strain. His character isn’t strong enough to hold the movie, so his bromance with Kuryakin becomes an essential failsafe. Hammer handles the heavy lifting, complete with severe accent and demeanour, and he’s mostly amusing.
Vikander plays it safe as Gaby, a character who clowns at being a car mechanic but abandons more of the cause as the movie rolls along. At one point, she talks cars shortly after the lads talk fashion. But Ritchie only teases the reverse of gender expectations so far and it soon becomes all about the clothes and the style and the sex. The latter lurks around in that benign, PG-13 sort of way.
The villainous Victoria is the better character. She’s in command and she’s interesting, dripping with all sorts of aggrieved sin. She picks up the business end of the nuclear venture and wants people dead. When she threatens people, she means it. And when she gets the better of Solo, all superior in his resistance to poison, it’s tempting to take her side.
But the glue that holds everything together gives way too much and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. just seems to sit around and wait for the clock to run out. The finale lacks sizzle and the bigger action setups don’t pop enough. Ritchie does make things interesting when he whizzes around between scenes and uses split-screens along with blocky yellow font, but the retro touches only get him so far.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is an exercise in form, with Cavill and Hammer expected to carry the macho head games and Vikander around to play mommy. Everything’s a tease, from the nonviolent violence to the taste-of-soul score to the modish fashion, and it ultimately becomes apparent that the audience is being had by yet another glossy game. Too bad. Someone should’ve gone nuclear with this one.