I was under heavy sedation less than seven hours before the screening of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” So the enjoyment I got from it may have been chemically enhanced, and I make no promise you will have the same response.
But I thought director Guy Ritchie, who wasn’t born when the TV show debuted in 1964, cleverly captures the elements that made it a success: the self-indulgent feel of the Swinging Sixties, the gentle parody of James Bond films (which, of course, inspired the series) and the odd chemistry between uptight American Napoleon Solo (here played by Henry Cavill) and wry Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).
The script by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, a producer of Ritchie’s two “Sherlock Holmes” movies, steers carefully away from camp almost all the time.
German mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander), recruited by the two spies because her father is building a nuclear warhead for a criminal organization, is more than a traditionally decorative femme fatale. Mastermind Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) may crack a joke but remains mean-hearted and rapacious, never turning into a pussycat-petting Bond villain.
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Because the story takes place in 1963, it falls back on the old ex-Nazi gimmick. A German scientist who’s now working for the U.S. government gets kidnapped by the crooks, who compel him to build a bomb. (His brother, a former death camp torturer well played by Sylvester Groth, willingly works with the bad guys.)
The Soviet Union and United States put aside their Cold War squabble to defeat this bunch, assigning Solo and Kuryakin to infiltrate the group with Gaby’s help. The twist this time is that the two men have tried to kill each other in the past and, with their handlers’ approval, may try again when the mission is over.
Ritchie employs split-screen shots to hasten us through long scenes: One potentially tedious assault on a fortress takes almost no time at all, because he gets the spies inside so quickly. Yet he doesn’t rush the parts of this caper that need more time.
The film does have two narrative problems. First, Kuryakin gets compared to a giant, a champion weightlifter, “something that’s barely human.” Hammer’s a big man, but he’s hardly enormous; if the filmmakers mean to suggest he has been genetically altered for super-strength, they don’t make that clear, and they don’t use this power after paying homage to it.
Second, Solo remains a cipher. Ritchie and Wigram give him an intriguing past: He served honorably as a soldier in World War II, became a black marketer specializing in stolen art, can pick a pocket or open a safe and now works for the CIA to avoid a 15-year jail term. But his blandly ironic delivery never changes, and I couldn’t tell whether Cavill or the character (or both) were dull.
Don’t be misled by the trailer, by the way. Hugh Grant does appear briefly as Waverly, the British naval commander who takes over control of the mission. (That’s an in-joke: Grant was considered to play naval commander James Bond when Pierce Brosnan quit.) But he doesn’t create the United Network Command for Law Enforcement until the final, sequel-presaging scene. So for virtually the entire film, there is no man from “U.N.C.L.E.” at all.
‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’
☆ ☆ ☆
STARS: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki.
DIRECTOR: Guy Ritchie.
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes.
RATING: PG-13 (action violence, some suggestive content, partial nudity).