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Movie Review: 'The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'

The bland spy caper The Man from U.N.C.L.E. compromises its agents in the field.

Review by Matt Cummings

If there's one thing that can be said about Director/Writer Guy Richie's breathless directorial resume, it's that he's always been able to entertain while keeping his unique vision for a film intact. Even if they're not to everyone's liking (I personally love his take on Sherlock Holmes), one can never criticize his casting and the twists he throws in as a writer. Unfortunately, something's missing from his current project The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; it comes across as too old for younger kids to remember and not much like the one that tore up evening television in the mid-1960's.

When the art thief Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is forced by the CIA to carry out spy missions to expunge his criminal record, he runs into the towering KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) during an operation in Cold War East Berlin. Distrustful of each other after Solo successfully moves the auto mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander) out of danger, the duo form an uneasy partnership when their governments force them to work together. The dashing Solo and the square-chin Illya must track down a private entity - led by the glamorous Italian Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) - that's about to finish a nuclear device with the help of Gaby's father. As the trio get their orders from new boss Waverly (Hugh Grant), Illya and Solo must learn to work together before the world succumbs to nuclear annihilation.

The problems with Richie's take on the classic television series is many-fold: pretty but dull leads in Cavill and Hammer, a script devoid of the usual fun behind a Richie production, and a general sense of been-there-seen-that. Cavill, once in line to play James Bond, is classy here but the CIA doesn't suit him well enough, acting almost too reserved for such a big Bond-like role. Hammer has always been the definition of bland, his Russian accent suffering under a character that we know just enough about but never enough to like or hate. His best scenes are when he's driven to the point of a fierce and violent reply, his hands shaking just before he decides to wreck something; I wish that had been a central focus instead of the lighter comedic action that sometimes goes on for too long.

Richie's story suffers from perhaps a poor edit by long-time collaborator James Herbert, with some characters needing more time (Illya and Waverly) and others getting too much (Napoleon). The pacing feels off, as if everyone including Vikander - who I never bought as a pretty grease monkey - is merely going through the script like an 80's video game. Get to this point. Now another. And another. Those sorts of structural problems plague the script: there's never the sense that our villain is a threat to anything other than her husband's credit card, cause terror in the minds of anyone, or is able to carry any of it out without help. Even when Victoria guns down a central character, Gaby takes away any impact of the execution by replying, "He died a long time ago." There are hints of some comedic brilliance here, with Cavill and Hammer constantly bickering like an old married couple; but most of that feels practiced, as if neither of their personalities are capable of doing anything more.

When the action ramps up, Richie and Herbert's cuts are a little too fast and fail to sell us on its universe well enough to give their characters the benefit of the doubt. Truth be told, even the action isn't that incredible, perhaps a notion Richie was hoping would pay off given its period-piece heritage. Not so much. U.N.C.L.E. is stuck somewhere between Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and the upcoming SPECTRE, both of which (by the way) do excellent jobs of selling their universes. The reason: Richie barely borrows the original characters and Composer Jerry Goldsmith's theme, going so far as to introduce a female lead that didn't happen until the final Season 4. I wasn't able to pick up any references to the show, and had the character names not been ported over, we could have been watching any spy action/comedy set in the 1960's.

However, if you like Richie's style you'll love the retro cool (and easily-seen film grain) of U.N.C.L.E.. Cinematographer John Mathieson basks the screen in rich elegant colors and posh sets, taking a more frenetic pace with several of the action set pieces. Herbert's not a total failure here, mixing different angles of the same scene with thick slashing diagonal lines, all very 60's and very Richie. It's too bad that its style couldn't have found a way into this script, which utterly fails to impress upon us the true differences in philosophy between East and West from that time. There's only brazen tension at the beginning and no fights between our leads afterwards, even though both sides want the other eliminated by film's end. Granted, the threat of a nuclear weapon might be cause enough to set aside differences, but we never get to know these characters' sympathies enough to like or hate them. This is the emotional core that's missing and plagues U.N.C.L.E. throughout.

There's little to separate The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from the sheer mass of spy-infused movies and television shows playing in 2015, with no greater example than Rogue Nation, a movie that's got U.N.C.L.E. beat in every way. Had Richie been alone in the spy market this summer, perhaps our attitude would have softened; and so perhaps it's the victim of bad timing. A future viewing months from now will be in order to see if proximity played a role. But for now, its rather stale nature will be instantly forgettable as you emerge from the theater.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is Rated PG-13 for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity and has a runtime of 116 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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