Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
Guy Ritchie
Written by:
Screenplay by Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram, from a story by Ritchie, Wigram, Jeff Kleeman & David C. Wilson. Based on the television series by Sam Rolfe.
Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander
Length:   116 minutes
Released:   081415
Rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity
“ feels as if so much energy was invested in getting the project to the point where it could finally be made that there was virtually none left with which to make it."

Can’t Guy Ritchie leave well enough alone? First, he turns the greatest literary sleuth into a bipolar, boxing loving, pistol wielding, hyperactive man child. And now, he grabs one of the better TV series to come out of the whole “spy craze” of the 60s and turns it into a bland, humorless, equally hyperactive reboot of those shows and movies. Airing on NBC from 1964-68, the original “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” featured an international counter-espionage agency that constantly locked horns with terror organization T.H.R.U.S.H. Its two top agents were Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, played by the debonair Robert Vaughn and the quietly nonchalant David McCallum (better known to NCIS fans as Donald “Ducky” Mallard). Week after week they saved the world from an outrageous doom-laden plot. The series was sometimes as tongue-in-cheek and had as much flair as the Bond films it tried to emulate and for good reason: Ian Fleming contributed concepts and Napoleon Solo’s name to the series.

Currently airing on the Me-TV network, the series may be a tad dated, but it still is fun. Alas, the same cannot be said of Ritchie’s take on the series. As in Ritchie’s two “Sherlock Holmes” films, Solo and Kuryakin are portrayed as a bickering married couple. But whereas the scenes between Downey as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson were the one thing tolerable about the two films, you can’t say the same about Cavill’s and Hammer’s scenes together. They may look good on the big screen but both lack the charisma and sense of humor that Vaughn and McCallum brought to these characters. They were one of the reasons why viewers would tune in week after week to watch “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Had Cavill and Hammer been of age and had been cast when the show originally aired, it would have lasted a full season only.

Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, has been trying for more than twenty years to transfer the popular Sixties television spy series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." from the small screen to the big--an abbreviated list of the well-known names that have been connected to it in some capacity over that time includes the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Matthew Vaughn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and Steven Soderbergh, who almost got it going in 2011 before leaving the project because of budget concerns. Now that it has finally arrived, under the aegis of the redoubtable Guy Ritchie, most viewers, especially those with a working knowledge of its arduous journey to the multiplex, may find themselves wondering what all the fuss was in the first place. Sure, it has been made with a certain undeniable style but for the most part, it feels as if so much energy was invested in getting the project to the point where it could finally be made that there was virtually none left with which to make it.

Set in 1963, at the height of the Cold War, the film serves as a sort of origin story--one never entirely laid out in the original series--showing how American art thief/government operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian KGB agent extraordinaire Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) first came together to fight crime throughout the world as part of the elite United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. In the opening sequence, Solo slips through Checkpoint Charlie in order to track down Gaby (Alicia Vikander), a seemingly unassuming mechanic whose father was a former Nazi scientist, and extract her from East Germany. While trying to pull this off, he finds Kuryakin trying to do the same thing in the name of his country, leading to a big car chase and firefight before Solo and Gaby manage to escape.

Before long, however, Solo and Kuryakin, who are now instant enemies, are forced to work together when their two normally opposed countries decide to join forces to fight a common enemy more dangerous than either of them--a shadowy criminal organization led by crazed Italian heiress Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) hell-bent on acquiring enough nuclear technology to destabilize the entire world. With Gaby as their only real lead--her now-missing father is presumed to be working, voluntarily or not, for Victoria--the two set off on a race against time to save the day. Of course, even though they are supposed to be working together, their wildly opposing attitudes towards their approaches--Solo is sly and casual while Kuryakin is humorless and relentlessly by the book--and tensions are increased by the fact that each has been secretly advised by their respective governments to eliminate the other when the time comes.

Even when it was first announced, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." seemed to be an unlikely candidate for a screen adaptation--unlike, say, "Mission: Impossible," it is a property that will be unfamiliar to most contemporary audiences and it is one that does not exactly lend itself to a modern-day update due to being tied so specifically to its Cold War setting. Happily, director and co-writer Guy Ritchie elected to keep it set in its own particular period and this proved to be one of the few really smart decisions behind the project. By setting it then. it allows Ritchie to offer up an homage to the early Bond films that relied on smart storytelling and effortless style instead of gadgets and over-the-top action set-pieces. Even better, it forces Ritchie to abandon the overblown cinematic style that he employed to such deadening effect in his "Sherlock Holmes" films for a more direct take that is a much better fit for the material. The opening sequence involving the springing of Gaby from East Germany is nicely put together, and there is another nifty bit in which Solo merely watches a speedboat chase involving Kuryakin and Victoria's goons that gets a lot of laughs as well. (On the other hand, while more visually coherent than usual for Ritchie, the big finale is so forgettable that you will be struggling to recall key details from it even before you leave the theater.)

These bits are fun but they only serve to underline the film's considerable failings. For one, while some of the individual scenes, like the ones mentioned above, are fun, the story as a whole is pretty much a dud--the missing warhead stuff seems to have been trucked in from a dozen other movies, the motivations of the villains are incredibly murky and, outside of a couple of semi-snide jibes here and there, the tensions that should theoretically exist between Solo and Kuryakin are virtually nonexistent, presumably to make room for Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram to insert double-entendre-laden banter between the two that just feels weird here. An even bigger problems is that the two main roles, which should be played with two guys with plenty of charisma to spare, have been cast with two duds. As Solo, Henry Cavill does for the role pretty much what he did for Superman in "Man of Steel"--he fills the suit but little else and his super-casual and borderline smirk-y approach crosses the line into outright smugness more often than not. As Kuryakin, Armie Hammer inspires the same thoughts that he did the last time he headed a would-be franchise when he starred in "The Lone Ranger"--how many other actors passed on the part before it landed in his lap?--and his lack of any real charisma (coupled with his highly questionable Russian accent) leaves a hole at the center of the proceedings that no amount of byplay can fill. They look good together but they do not play well together and in a film like this, that kind of anti-charisma proves to be disastrous after a while.

"The Man for U.N.C.L.E." never comes together in the way that a crackerjack thriller like "Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation" does and it is a shame because it does have a few good points. Visually, it is a gas throughout--cinematographer John Mathieson, editor James Herbert and production designer Oliver Scholl have combined their talents to create a loving visual homage to Sixties pop cinema that is genuinely beautiful to behold throughout. The other standout, visual and otherwise, is the presence of Alicia Vikander as Gaby. The Swedish actress has appeared in a number of films this year and while her turn here will not go down as the most notable--that would be her stellar turn as the artificial intelligence unit at the center of the stunning "Ex Machina"--but it is probably the most high-profile of her career to date. Although the part is nothing to write home about (female roles in the films it is trying to emulate rarely were), she does well with a performance that is funny and sexy in equal measure and which demonstrates that she has more raw screen chemistry in one of her fingers than her co-stars possess in total. In the unlikely event that "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." does inspire a film franchise (and the fact that it is being opened only a couple of weeks after the blockbuster success of "Mission: Impossible--Rogue Nation" suggests that will probably not be the case), here is hoping that the filmmakers honor the promise made by this film's final shot and brings Vikander back into the fold for a second go-around. Not a parody, and certainly not a straight thriller either, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ends up a weak, uneasy pastiche of styles and genres in search of a consistent tone. Tonight's episode, “The Exceedingly Dull Affair”.

MAN FROM UNCLE © 2015 Warner Brothers Films
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2015 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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