James Bond was not the only spy that bears the imprint of his creator, Ian Fleming. The British author also lent a hand to the development of Napoleon Solo, an American secret agent paired with a Soviet spook named Illya Kuryakin in the NBC TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The show, which starred Robert Vaughn as Solo and David McCallum as Kuryakin, ran from 1964 to 1968 and was very much a product of its era, not to mention a heavily derivative takeoff on the spy genre that was so popular during that decade.
Fifty years later, director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) brings us a feature film version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., still set in the ‘60s and starring Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin. The film’s Solo is an art thief who is corralled into working as an agent with his Russian counterpart Kuryakin by the enigmatic handler Saunders (Jared Harris) and equally mysterious chief Waverly (Hugh Grant). The two agents first cross paths when Solo breaks a beautiful German woman named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) out of East Berlin, with Kuryakin hot on their heels. But the two mutually distrustful spies are eventually forced to work together and find Gaby’s father, a German scientist who has vanished along with the nuclear secrets he possesses.
Although you don’t need to know the TV show to watch the film (and let’s face it, most moviegoers have never heard of it at this stage), Ritchie has wisely decided to keep the movie in the show’s original period. On a purely sensory level, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a delight. The director even goes retro with the camera, holding it still much more frequently than on his earlier films, and allowing cinematographer John Mathieson to fill that calm frame with some exquisite compositions. Of course, the film’s fashions, exotic settings, and three camera-ready stars are a consistent pleasure to look at, right down to the smallest details, and the film has one of the most winning scores of the year, with Daniel Pemberton providing a propulsive, jazzy boost that the film sorely needs.
I say “sorely” because where The Man from U.N.C.L.E. falls down is in its actors’ charisma and chemistry, as well as the story by Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram. Despite their attractiveness and dedication, Cavill and Hammer (both rocking unsteady accents) still don’t break through as true leading men. Cavill fares better, delivering a casual charm and nonchalance that helps offset his essential blandness (one can see why he was both considered and rejected for Bond a few years back), but Hammer’s Kuryakin is mostly one-note. The women, including Elizabeth Debicki as the film’s vampy Blofeld stand-in, fare better, and Vikander exhibits ease in moving from arthouse gems to summer fare.
But the stars never really generate any real sizzle together, and the plot feels like reheated leftovers from Bond, Our Man Flint, or the Man from U.N.C.L.E. series itself. In going for more of the ultra-cool vibe of the ‘60s Bonds and their brethren – instead of the more serious 007s and Bournes of today – Ritchie and Wigram have made their plot so inconsequential that it becomes inert. The movie drags, not for a lack of action but because we don’t really know or care what’s happening, and the director and stars don’t effectively communicate the stakes. We always rooted for Bond because we either wanted to be him or the story delivered an urgency that somehow seemed real. We get neither option in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and no one involved seems particularly concerned about that, making the movie turgid when it should be snappy and light on its feet.
The movie’s worst sin is that it all amounts to a bit of throat-clearing: we never hear the acronym “U.N.C.L.E.” until the very end of the picture, and only then we realize that most of this has just been the inevitable set-up for a new franchise. But aside from the pure pleasures provided by the director of photography, the production and costume designers, and the composer, there’s very little here on which to build an ongoing series of adventures. There are worse things to watch on the big screen this August, but unless you’re in the mood for a throwaway movie with little to remember beyond its gorgeous visuals, there’s still no compelling reason to cast one’s lot with this team.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is out in theaters Friday (Aug. 14).