The grit and glamour of 60s spy craft gets a revival in Guy Ritchie’s expensive adaptation of TV’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Henry Cavill replaces Robert Vaughn as the new Napoleon Solo, a former art thief forcibly employed by the CIA. He forges an equally reluctant partnership with Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, replacing David McCallum) a mountainous Soviet spy with severe anger management issues.
The Macguffin’s a missing Nazi rocket scientist and a tape packed full of bomb-making information, with which a villainous organisation plans to build a nuclear warhead. With the assistance of East German car mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander), the scientist’s niece, Solo and Kuryakin head to Rome to track down the bad guys. They’re led by the icy Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Dibicki), who, by the by, looks quite a bit like noughties-era Madonna.
Ritchie, no stranger to directing action films with a dash of comedy, is clearly in love with the surface detail provided by The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s cold war setting. Long shots linger over clothes, cars and cut glass decanters. Entire sequences take place in gilded hotels or at glitzy champagne receptions at motor racing events. But the director who made Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch such a fast-paced thrill ride loses his rhythm here, allowing his characters to luxuriate in unnecessarily protracted scenes of banter and flirting.
Cavill seems to be enjoying himself as Solo, an urbane, almost unbearably vain agent whose crisp American accent may have been swiped from Brian, the novel-writing dog out of Family Guy. But Solo’s glibness seems to infect the whole movie, so that even grittier action moments have a sense of airbrushed superficiality. The only character who gets anything remotely approaching a character arc is Hammer, whose Kuryakin is a beguiling, Hulk-like ball of repressed violence. Alicia Vikander’s largely wasted as Gaby, a fun, tomboyish character who ultimately gets to do very little. The plot’s repeatedly put on hold to allow the cast to exchange yet more slabs of banter, until Hugh Grant shows up as the mid-point to say something to the effect of, “Isn’t it about time we got a move on?”
An action comedy doesn’t necessarily need character depth or white-knuckle tension, but it does need to establish some sense of peril and rising stakes. But The Man From U.N.C.L.E spends too long in hotel rooms or at parties for its own good, allowing the plot to stall as characters make sly quips or chat each other up. Amusingly, the handful of twists are dealt with in a singularly distracting way: they’re effectively presented twice, with a slab of exposition laid over the top of the second play-through.
The opening action scene’s perfectly fine, but a late car chase looks more like a Top Gear challenge than a deadly pursuit. Similarly, the comedy doesn’t always hit the mark; Cavill and Hammer’s verbal jousts are perfectly fine, but other scenes, which take in sadistic Nazi war criminals and torture, simply come across as uneasily ill-natured.
Ritchie struck box-office gold with his Sherlock Holmes movies, which fused classic characters with effects, action and broad comedy, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E appears to be an attempt to press a cult TV show into the same mould. The result is far from a failure, and there are some serviceably amusing moments to be found here – not least in the scenes where Vikander’s likeably petulant character is given the spotlight. But as an action film and a comedy, its set-pieces feel rote and unimaginative; even Ritchie seems to want to skip over one shoot-out, so he cuts it together as a rapid-fire, split-screen montage. It’s the cinematic way of saying, “The good guys have guns, the bad guys have guns. You get the picture.”
Mildly diverting in its best moments though it is, the overwhelming sensation The Man From U.N.C.L.E leaves behind is of languid self-indulgence. The actors have charisma, the locations are exotic and the clothes are luxurious, but the film itself is sorely lacking the same spark.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E is out in UK cinemas on the 14th August.
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