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Review: ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ is high style, low substance

🕐 3 min read

It’s not until the climax of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” a colorful, Cold War-era spy thriller, that its main failing becomes clear: The plot doesn’t matter.

The characters don’t care. The script doesn’t care. And, the audience shouldn’t care either.

That doesn’t make this odd adaptation of the 1960s NBC series bad. But it is a false promise that distracts from some of the other pleasures (and missteps) of the spectacle.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” mercifully does not require any knowledge of its television origin. In fact, the forgettable acronym is uttered once and explained only in text in the closing credits.

This ode to handsome men, women, clothes and cars is less about a Russian (Armie Hammer) and an American (Henry Cavill) teaming up to infiltrate a shadowy organization with nuclear ambitions, than a sort of pastiche of the ’60s spy genre derived from Vogue magazine spreads.

Director Guy Ritchie offers an intriguing and captivating introduction, though, weaving together humor, action, and stylish, angular shots in a disarmingly simple, but effective opening sequence. American agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) needs to get a girl, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), daughter of “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist,” out of East Berlin, while Russian agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) tries to stop that from happening.

The scene builds tension expertly and works with the constraints of the 1960s cars to make the chase exciting. The suave Solo is unfazed by setbacks, and yet he’s still in awe of Illya’s brute power.

Indeed, Illya is made out to be a superhuman. At 6′ 5″, Hammer is an imposing presence, but even on screen, the wonder with which everyone treats this “giant” seems like a stretch. You just accept it, though, much like the American actor’s cartoonish Russian accent.

It’s all used for comedy, and the physicality gets even more absurd. Over the course of the film, Illya throws, in no particular order, a hotel coffee table, a television, a cafe bistro table, Henry Cavill, a motorbike, and a trunk that he’s just torn off of a moving car.

Alas, the movie doesn’t fulfil the tease of the opening sequence. From there it devolves into a series of revelations with diminishing returns. Illya and Solo team up, give each other pet names (Cowboy and Peril), debate fashion and travel to picturesque locales all in service of finding this rogue nuclear bomb.

It’s the type of film that’s more interested in having side characters say pretty things like “I’m on a strict diet of champagne and caviar,” and making sure model-like hotel clerks submit within minutes of casual propositions, than it is in its main story.

Solo and Illya’s odd couple pairing is woefully underused, too. We know that they’re two sides of an ideological coin and a thief and a thug at heart, but this movie doesn’t even attempt to serve that tension. Mostly it’s silent glares and the occasional strategic disagreement: the most amusing of which are over clothes. Perhaps this film should have been an all-out farce.

What pleasure does exist is in the carefully crafted aesthetics and the exaggerated acting, especially Cavill’s devilish charm. Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki (as the glamorous big bad) are deliciously cool.

Ritchie, meanwhile, experiments with in-depth tangents and bold, suggestive subtitles, as though he’s attempting something approximating Tarantino-lite. It doesn’t come close to that, but the catchy, perfectly timed music choices do go a long way in making the overall experience much more fun.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” could be smarter. It could be faster. It could have given Hugh Grant more to do. But, in this case, beautiful, adequate and escapist is almost enough.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity.” Running time: 116 minutes. Two stars out of four.

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MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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