The Man From U.n.c.l.e

Reviewed by Rory Lynam

For fans of GQ photo spreads of pretty men in pretty suits and prettier women in prettier lingerie, Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation of the 1960s show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may well be for you. But for anyone looking for a little more out of a popcorn flick, one should look elsewhere.  The film is reasonably diverting, particularly in its first half but struggles to add any substance to the style, and ultimately, remains as cold as the war it depicts.

An opening credits montage of newspaper headlines and historical footage establish that yes, America and the Soviet Union were not on the best of terms in the 1960s.  Things kick into action with American spy Napoleon Solo, blandly played by Henry Cavill, on a mission to extricate Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a German nuclear scientist who has been captured to build a nuclear weapon for a criminal organization led by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). The only hiccup in the plan is Russian agent Illya Kuryakin, a miscast Armie Hammer, who is on exactly the same mission as Solo. Thankfully, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. cuts to the chase quickly with Solo and Kuryakin partnered up and put into action together.

Sadly, the film fails to live up to the energy and playfulness established early on, hindered by a remarkably generic and dull plot involving rocket scientists, Nazis, and world domination that would have been dated by the 1970s. Tellingly, the film is at its best early on when it can coast on charm and style.  However, as it progresses its lack of substance becomes more and more apparent. Though Ritchie is known as a visually stylistic director, his direction here is rather restrained, perhaps more accurately described as limited, or devoid of ideas. While his Sherlock Holmes films were characterised by an ugly overuse of CGI, at least they were distinctive. The filmmaking here is competent, but rarely interesting. And when the screen is divided into two, or three, or four frames, for the hundredth split-screen, it would be understandable of any viewer to yearn for a slow motion shot of Robert Downey Jr. sailing over a CGI’d London. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t come.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is ultimately a film about the relationship, or in modern parlance, bromance, between its two male leads. Neither stands out and they have as much chemistry as America and Russia had at the time of the cold war. Cavill, most famous for unconvincingly playing an alien in Man of Steel, continues to unconvincingly play human beings. Hammer, a charismatic presence in other films, fails to convince as a stiff, angry to the point of psychosis, buttoned up spy. The idea of these two as great enemies, let alone great friends, holds very little water, and fails to hold ones attention. Other performers fare a little better. Alicia Vikander does what she can with a relatively thankless role. Elizabeth Debicki has fun as the villain, as does Jared Harris as Solo’s CIA handler. Hugh Grant makes a short appearance imbuing more charisma into a single scene than the two male leads manage over the films entire run time.

Ricthie’s ultimate goal appears to have been to make as ‘cool’ a film as possible. Casting attractive actors, fitting them in attractive clothes, and sending them to attractive locations. An easy-going sense of fun and a refusal to take itself seriously, result in a film that feels slight and inconsequential. Neither the performances nor the script are sharp enough to overcome this slightness. Its slickness carries the film along for it’s first half, but ultimately it suffocates under its own lack of stakes, failing to build any tension upon an inherently tense premise. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a bit like GQ magazine. Attractive on the surface, just don’t look much deeper.