There’s a great deal to like in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., director Guy Ritchie’s highly-stylized take on the classic spy TV series of the 60’s, particularly in the casting and visual and storytelling aesthetics to which Ritchie so fully commits the film.
It’s too bad he and the three other writers credited with the film’s story didn’t come up with a strong enough plot to be worthy of all that style and the talent they brought together in front of the camera. Look past the well-crafted period setting and Cold War-era tropes and what they give audiences is a “buddy cop” film that predictably serves as a launching pad for what Warner Bros. clearly hopes can be a franchise. That’s not to say it’s not entertaining — it is, at times — but in comparison to other spy-themed action thrillers this year, it just doesn’t deliver the same level of innovative excitement.
1963 East Germany. The C.I.A.’s top agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, Man of Steel), finds himself being tailed and eventually chased and shot at by a rather formidable K.G.B. agent while attempting to reach Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, Ex-Machina), the feisty daughter of a missing ex-Nazi rocket scientist, and extract her to Allied-controlled West Germany. He barely manages to get her out, but to his surprise, the mission doesn’t end with her extraction. Instead, he and Gaby are teamed with the very K.G.B. agent that tried to kill him the night before, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, The Lone Ranger), as part of a joint intelligence operation to find Gaby’s father and prevent him from building a nuclear weapon for the people presumably holding him.
Naturally, the rakish and glib Solo and the stolid, sometimes volatile Kuryakin have some issues to work out before they can effectively work together, and Gaby’s none too thrilled to have to play nice with the Russian, either. But the nefarious folks they’re after are clearly dangerous enough that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. feel it necessary to put aside their political differences and work together, so it’s not as though the spies and their asset have any choice. Make nice, stop the bad guys from starting a nuclear war, then they can all go back to trying to kill each other. Simple enough, right?
In re-imagining Solo, Kuryakin, U.N.C.L.E., and their world of international intrigue and spy-fi derring do, Ritchie and writing partner Lionel Wigram, with whom he previously worked on the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law Sherlock Holmes films, retain the source material’s Cold War setting and recognizable tropes while also adopting a consciously European style of storytelling pace. The result is somewhat reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s deliberate style choices in the second of his Ocean’s trilogy, Ocean’s Twelve, or director Anton Corbijn’s vision and pace in another George Clooney vehicle, 2010’s The American, where the creation of atmosphere and full utilization of the film’s exotic settings seems to take precedence over keeping the action going at a breakneck pace. As such, while U.N.C.L.E. is certainly a pretty film to look at from start to finish, particularly in its second and third acts when the action is primarily set in Rome and in other parts of the Mediterranean, it doesn’t feel as tightly or efficiently plotted as it could have. While it never slows to a complete crawl, that lack of urgency, that prioritization of aesthetic over tension and adrenaline, may not appeal to all audiences, particularly those with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation or even Kingsman: The Secret Service fresh in memory from earlier this year.
What should appeal to most audiences in U.N.C.L.E., to be fair, is the film’s casting. Cavill in particular shines here as Solo, who is, in essence, an American version of 007. Cavalier, impeccably tailored and styled while unmistakably dangerous, Solo was originally created for the TV series with input from Bond creator Ian Fleming himself; thus, in bringing Solo to life in this film in such a memorable way, Cavill is in part making his case to perhaps someday play Bond on screen himself. Hammer doesn’t get to have quite as much fun playing the super-serious and soft-spoken Kuryakin, but it’s undeniably fun to watch the two foils play off of each other, as they are each other’s opposite in every meaningful way save for effectiveness in the field. As far as the film’s action, both actors have no trouble with credibly delivering the requisite physicality to sell those sequences; in fact, they do so well with the action they’re given that you might find yourself wishing the film had more action-driven set pieces. The ladies in this ensemble also get a chance to hold their own and have a little fun, as the “Bond girl”/damsel in distress is one cliché Ritchie and Wigram wisely avoid using in their script. Vikander, who made a very strong impression in the critically-acclaimed Ex-Machina back in January, in particular gets to cut loose and give the boys a run for their money, while Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) is deliciously cold and calculating as Victoria, the film’s true evil mastermind. Hugh Grant cheekily rounds out this terrific ensemble as Waverly, a British agent whose role in the entire affair will lead him to become very important in the lives of Solo and Kuryakin should U.N.C.L.E. in fact be the first in a new franchise.
But again, all that effort at European style and all that charisma in front of the camera can’t quite overcome the failings of a screen story that’s little more than a hodge-podge of the very spy movie plots that the film tries so hard to honor. Put a simpler way, the folks behind the camera in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. thought their concept and execution so clever that it could make a story built almost entirely from clichés feel fresh, vibrant, and fun, and it just isn’t. At the end of the day, it’s a film that can’t escape its conventionality, that you know exactly where things are going and where they’ll end up by the end. Perhaps that’s true of many mainstream films these days, particularly action films and thrillers, but the best ones of late, the ones that stand out and have audiences excitedly talking about them long after the credits have rolled, are ones where you may have an idea where things will end up by the end, but you have no idea how the film will get there once the bullets start flying and things get complicated.
Considering that Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows made their mark on the box office and on audiences in part by being so unconventional in its approach to its iconic source material, it’s a strange thing indeed to see him take on another iconic property and see it fall short because it’s “too conventional.” Suffice to say, this Man from U.N.C.L.E. probably won’t make even close to the kind of impression that the Holmes films did. Instead, it’s more likely to leave you thinking about how it could and should have been better.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, with Jared Harris and Hugh Grant. Directed by Guy Ritchie.
Running Time: 116 minutes
Rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity.