I always wonder how secret agents manage to look so superbly good. I guess all that Cold War cash had to assert dominance in every way imaginable, fashion included. Guy Ritchie’s latest romp, the resurrection of the campy sixties TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as a breezy spy franchise in the offing, certainly lays on the style. The sunglasses budget alone must’ve been thousands. Deviating from the bombast of the Mission Impossible series, Ritchie opts for a sardonic retro pastiche. Unquestionably cool, find out after the jump if The Man from U.N.C.L.E. delivers on its premise, or the emperor’s only sporting exquisite new clothes.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. follows the Bond prototype closely: scenic European capitals, lavish hotel rooms, de rigeur car chases and dry wit under duress. Henry Cavill exudes smirking panache as Napoleon Solo, a former soldier and art thief recruited for his nefarious talents to work for the C.I.A. He arrives in early sixties divided Berlin to question an East German car mechanic about the disappearance of her father, a former Nazi nuclear scientist who went over to the Americans. Realizing he’s been bugged, Solo gives the fetching mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander) little choice but to escape with him over The Wall. Their break for freedom is immediately complicated by a nearly super-human Russian agent, Ilya Kuryakin, played by Armie Hammer as a tightly wound alpha male with a barely restrained temper. The brief chase that follows is clever and fun, drawing in part on the stop-start genius of Ryan Gosling in Drive. But with little investment in the early going it’s a short burst of energy, a brief sugar high that’s oft-repeated throughout the film’s meandering plot.
Solo and Gaby get free, only to be pulled into the hunt for her father with an ungainly Russian/American partnership. Now teamed up with their KGB adversary Kuryakin, the unlikely trio must make their way to Rome to wheedle information on her father’s whereabouts from Gaby’s uncle, a former Nazi sympathizer and factory owner who could be wrapped up in a plot to develop a nuclear weapon, his venomous wife the likely mastermind of the operation. That’s the way it goes in spy stories. Endless commas, endless complications.
The film succeeds as popcorn fluff, an Aspartame version of meatier, uglier Ritchie movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). Which has been Ritchie’s mode since at least the Sherlock Holmes movies (and even before), a veneer of frenetic fun without a whole lot happening underneath. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, when it works. Solo’s cavalier attitude conflicts regularly with Ilya’s competitive belligerence, and of course the two come to develop a grudging respect. One of the more amusing sequences finds Ilya on a motorboat hopelessly trying to evade his nautical pursuit in an enclosed inlet while Solo watches indifferently from a truck nearby, having been thrown off the boat and swum unnoticed to shore. He sits and eats the spoils of the lunch basket he finds on the seat, while Ilya zips pointlessly back and forth before him. It’s a tactic Ritchie employs repeatedly in the movie, glossing over the action for comedic effect. But it sucks the intensity out of the proceedings. Nuclear bombs are high stakes. The movie rarely feels that way.
Better is the budding conflicted romance between Gaby and Ilya. Forced to pose as an engaged couple, the two find themselves in an unusual courtship. Gaby likes to tease and torment Ilya for his repressed nature. He finds this infuriating, and therefore incredibly attractive. They share some entertaining scenes, especially cooped up in a stunning Italian hotel room together, but can never quite seal the deal.
Which sums up my experience with the film. Everyone is gorgeously put together, Ritchie’s style and music choices are on-point, his split-screen montages beautiful and a nice callout to films and TV of the era. It’s fun and light, even if it doesn’t quite gel. There are worse ways you could spend your money than gazing at Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander being unflappable in chic clothes. Or you could just buy an issue of GQ. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, oh wait, that’s the other one. Is it worthy of a franchise? For that, you’ll have to wait for the other expensive shoe to drop.