Of all the spy movies hitting theaters this year, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is one of them. It’s not the funniest (that’d be “Spy”), it’s not the most outrageous (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”), it’s not the most thrilling (“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”). It’s not even the most anticipated (the upcoming “Spectre”). But hey, it’s here, and that counts for something, right?
Based on 1960s spy-fi series, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” follows the misadventures of a mismatched pair of undercover agents during the Cold War. An American soldier turned thief turned CIA operative, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is unwillingly teamed with the often grim, monstrously strong but nonetheless bewitching KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Together they must protect an East German mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) and track down a nuclear bomb that’s soon to hit the black market.
Despite my terse description, the plot grows convoluted and, at times, confusing, and the accents are all over the place (I don’t know how Vikander’s is German or where in the United States the English Cavill thinks Napoleon is from). But I would have gladly forgiven all of that if the film contained the whimsy, biting banter and visual flair director/co-writer Guy Ritchie showed in his early films, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” While “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is alive with retro pop music and color — from Vikander’s eye-popping mod dresses to its classic cars — it’s short on character, quickly sketching out its leads amid bloated dialogue scenes overflowing with bumbling exposition. It’s a bit of a waste of a compelling cast.
All the same, Armie Hammer is a delight as Illya. Although this Cold War dude’s default mode is stern, Hammer creates cracks in this façade that are charming and frequently funny. The film’s best scene may be one teased in the trailer, where a pajamas-sporting Gaby dares her oversize bodyguard to dance, then — failing that — to wrestle. Hammer and Vikander share a heady chemistry when they tussle, whether physically, verbally or with sultry side-eye . She’s playful but sharp; he’s perplexed by this tiny girl who can throw him — almost literally — for a loop. While I tend to shudder at wedged-in romance plots, Illya and Gaby sizzled, in part because neither knows whether the other can be trusted, even as they fall in love.
Sadly for Cavill, his character feels sanitized to the point of silliness. Napoleon’s meant to be a kind of American James Bond, with all the swagger, womanizing ways, and devil-may-care attitude amped up by Yankee arrogance. Basically, he’s Archer, of the TV series of the same name, which probably pulled some of its inspiration from the original “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” But in a PG-13 movie, this new Napoleon is a tamed beast, whose most scandalous moment is convincing a comely hotel hostess to join him for some champagne and etc. An earlier scene in which Napoleon blithely risks Illya’s life for an impromptu picnic would probably have been more zany and fun had this same idea of petty grudge-holding and selfishness not been done to more and more outrageous lengths on “Archer” for six seasons to date.
To his credit, Ritchie still has an eye for some solid visual gags, like an angry Illya emerging from a bathroom inky with hellish red light only to reveal he’s been using it as a photo-development studio. Hammer and Vikander in particular land these beats beautifully. But only half of this action-comedy lives up to its name.
What struck me as most disappointing about “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is how underwhelming its action sequences are. They have their moments, like the quirky conclusion to the opening car chase. But by and large the geography is muddled, causing confusion when you’d hope for tension. The geography issue is mastered by the penultimate action sequence, yet this three-vehicle chase and rescue attempt lacks color, innovation or panache, crippling the momentum of its big finale.
As to whether fans of the series will like “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” I can’t speak to that, having never seen the show. But with its PG-13 rating, I doubt the film is expecting such awareness from its audience. However, after a summer that’s brought such already-iconic action as “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Mission Impossible 5,” audiences will expect more from “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” than it delivers.
It’s fine. It’s sometimes fun. But in the wake of truly surprising and exhilarating cinema, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”s crime is that it’s too easy to overlook.
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E” opens Friday nationwide.
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