Published Aug 14, 2015Director Guy Ritchie has always been preoccupied with cool. From when he first turned heads in 1998 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels all the way up to the Sherlock Holmes franchise, he's built a career out of emphasizing style over substance. So it only makes sense that he would eventually get around to making an espionage thriller like this big-screen adaptation of the '60s TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He's a canny choice for the gig — you only wish he cared more about things like character and plot than maintaining his hip aesthetic.
The bare bones of the show remain intact, with American CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) forced to do the unspeakable during the height of the Cold War and team up with Russian KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). They're joined by Gaby (Alicia Vikander), a comely mechanic who's there to help them track down her scientist father and prevent the nuclear warhead he's working on for some super-villains from falling into the wrong hands and endangering the world.
Kuryakin poses as Gaby's architect fiancé as they slowly and methodically attempt to infiltrate the lair of the evil Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) and her husband. The script, by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, spends a lot of time on needless exposition during this process and even then, we're still left a little confused about who all of these characters are beyond their most basic of motivations and what exactly they are up to in every scene besides generic subterfuge.
This is especially true of the two lead actors, who have each been provided only a couple of character traits and are then tasked with hammering them home over and over again. Solo is proficient at seducing women and so unflappable that it's hard to ever sense that he's in any grave danger. Kuryakin is a gruff and monosyllabic cipher that's prone to fits of rage that are underscored by cacophonous swells on the soundtrack. Oh, and Hugh Grant shows up every once in a while as a British agent who's been shoe-horned in as slight comic relief.
Their central relationship should feel like a begrudging friendship that's developing slowly, but there's no sense that the two get to know each other any more than we do. When Solo is forced to save Kuryakin from one particularly hairy predicament, he's so detached from the situation that he actually pauses to eat a sandwich before acting only out of a sense of duty. Similarly, Kuryakin's blossoming romance with Gaby never develops past the cliché of their kisses being continuously interrupted right as they're about to lock lips.
But Ritchie knows his way around an action scene, and he stages a few chases and shoot-outs that are exciting enough to make you wish they weren't so few and far between. The script is also full of his usual assortment of pithy exchanges and black humour but never really generates more than an occasional chuckle, while his predilection for quick flashbacks and flashy montages often seem unnecessary and distracting this time around.
It's interesting that Ritchie started out making movies with Matthew Vaughn, who crafted a superior spy film of his own this year with Kingsman: The Secret Service. That one captured the sense of exhilaration of becoming an undercover agent and possessed a vitality and originality that are sorely lacking here. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. comes off as an overeager audition for directing a Bond film made by someone who doesn't realize that smacking of desperation is the last thing you want when trying to be cool.