Here’s a movie that’s stylish and cool and sometimes innovative, a nice 60s-set reprieve from the typical 2015 action blockbuster that’s generally agreeable throughout, and it still isn’t very good.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a reboot (?) of the once-popular 1960s TV show that few will remember in 2015, headlined but two stars who have yet to prove themselves at the box office, Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) and Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger).
After The Avengers (1998 version, mind you), Wild Wild West, The Mod Squad, and countless other reworkings of popular TV shows from decades ago, you think the studios might finally learn their lesson.
It’s a recipe for disaster, at least in terms of potential box office. No surprise, U.N.C.L.E. made $13 million in its US opening last week, against a budget of $100 million.
I will say this: Cavill, surprisingly, is a delight as Napoleon Solo, a role originated by Robert Vaughn on TV. He’s slick and laid-back and Don Draper-esque in what often comes off as an imitation of Vaughn, for anyone who remembers the original, but he’s charismatic enough to carry the film whenever he’s onscreen.
While I’ve seen Cavill in numerous leading roles outside of Man of Steel (including Immortals, The Cold Light of Day, and Blood Creek), this is the first time I’ve really stood up and taken notice of his performance.
I can’t say the same for Hammer, who I loved in The Social Network but seems to be struggling in his transition to movie star. His Illya Kuryakin is a rather uninteresting brute (a different characterization than David McCallum in the series), and the actor is saddled with one of those thick Cold War Ruskie accents that can’t help but come off as phony, even if it is generally accurate.
Solo is a master thief enlisted (re: blackmailed) by the US government to drop in behind enemy lines in East Berlin and recruit Gaby Teller (Ex Machina’s Alicia Vikander), whose scientist father has been purportedly kidnapped by ex-Nazis in Italy to develop an atomic bomb.
I loved the breezy way director Guy Ritchie introduces everything in the film’s opening sequence, an action-chase scene that cuts in and out of backstory as Solo and Teller are hunted down in nighttime Berlin by Hammer’s super spy.
Twenty minutes into the movie, the three are recruited by their respective governments to work together to locate Teller’s father and everything has been set up in a clean & efficient manner.
After that, however – as the trio embarks on the mission to infiltrate the estate of wealthy shipping magnate Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) – the movie is so disarmingly straightforward that we wish Ritiche had made the entire film in the same breezy fashion that he set it up. There’s barely enough story in here for a 60-minute episode of the TV show, let alone this roughly two-hour feature.
What we’re left with is fashion and style and attitude, and while U.N.C.L.E. looks just fantastic, with authentic-feeling 1960s lensing from John Mathieson (Gladiator) and wonderful set and costume design, it’s just not enough to carry the movie, especially in draggy climactic scenes where the plot struggles to resolve itself.
Still, there are a number of scenes here I really dug: the aforementioned Berlin opener, along with a playful and unexpected “fight” sequence between Hammer and Vikander, and an action scene that ends up with Solo basically having a picnic in a truck while watching all the gunfire and explosions behind him in the rearview mirror.
One more huge plus: the soundtrack, which features some excellent 60s-era original music from Daniel Pemberton (The Counselor), along with a number of hits from the era including Solomon Burke’s Cry to Me and Peppino Gagliardi’s Che Vuole Questa Musica Stasera.
U.N.C.L.E. might win some kind of award for Most Casting Against Nationality. Cavill, a Brit, plays an American, as does Jared Harris, as his superior. American Hammer plays a Russian, Swede Vikander plays a German, and Debicki, of Polish-Irish descent, is an Italian. Only Hugh Grant, as a British official, plays his own nationality (would you buy him as anything else?), along with the German baddies, for that authentic Nazi feeling.
I can’t recommend the film as a whole, but I can recommend a lot of the parts here, and advise that there are far worse ways to spend a couple hours.
Note: about 10% of the dialogue in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is in Russian, German, and Italian, which is subtitled only in Czech on Prague screens.