The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a vibrantly colored, electrically charged, stylistic marvel mixing action set pieces with sexually-infused tension better than most action films. It stars a lead who does his best American James Bond impression while his co-star brings the brute strength of a classic action epic, akin to the Indiana Jones series. Drowning in charm, and dealing innuendos by the dozen, it was a trip back into the 1960s, where you sit on the back of a lavish car filled with beautiful people.
So then, why was I so bored throughout?
Writer/director Guy Ritchie is known for bringing his own distinct style to his action movies — that is the case with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, RocknRolla, Sherlock Holmes, and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows at least — and for the most part, he brings it to U.N.C.L.E. But there is something missing between the tailored suits, frilly gadgets, and smug smile of star Henry Cavill that seems to leave me with an empty feeling from this movie.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. follows Napoleon Solo (Cavill), an American spy tasked with bringing in Gaby (Alicia Vikander) because her father is the only person on Earth who can make a deadly missile, which would give one country ultimate power. Also looking for Gaby are the Russians and Illya (Armie Hammer), a boorish man who seems more in line with a freight train than a sports car. After a chase that leaves Gaby in the custody of Solo, it is revealed that the Americans and Russians are teaming up for this mission in order to take down a villainous organization led by Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki).
There is so much style involved that it is hard not to enjoy looking at it. What draws me to Ritchie is his brutish, stylized action, which gets loud and in your face, but still has a sense of placement and value. It is unique, even when copied by protegee Matthew Vaughn, and makes a “Guy Ritchie action movie” different from the usual blockbuster fare out there. It is an acquired taste, but one that I’m happy to drink down on any given occasion.
In U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie keeps up the habit, but enters us into the world of the 1960s elite. Filled with excessive dresses and tailored suits, the movie never doesn’t feel like a Ritchie special — where it dies though, is in the details. The plot is standard, get the girl and use her to get to her father in order to stop the bad guys from launching a bomb, but what Ritchie and U.N.C.L.E. seem to be doing to break the mold is giving it to you in a different package.
There is no real tension to the film. It leaps from set piece to set piece with Cavill and Hammer going back and forth with insults and quips. After an hour of it, you have to ask what the point is. Why am I watching these two spies try to get this bomb? Why do I care that Debicki’s character is going to have control of this weapon? What, outside of the obvious reasons, make Cavill and Hammer’s characters so different?
It’s sad too. Cavill, shredding the Superman persona, gives us his best Cary Grant impression and one that really works. He’s charming and brisk, gliding from scene to scene with the confident aura needed from your leading man. The same can’t be said for Hammer, who plays the character as stiff as a board, and is only there for the occasional comic relief at the hands of Cavill and to woo the even more dry Vikander.
It is easy to get swept away in the style of U.N.C.L.E., but the substance is what leaves you empty on the exit. Ritchie infuses the characteristics of action that made him famous, but they seem held back. The Sherlock Holmes movies weren’t perfect representations of great action, but they had a risk factor that made them likable because they were doing something different from the superhero and general action fare.
Some of the slow-motion didn’t work, and the set pieces seemed convoluted, but there was a sense that he was trying something different and new, but on a bigger scale from his early British hits. I don’t see that in U.N.C.L.E., which seems like it is trying too much to pander to the crowd that doesn’t always go for stylized action, which is sad. No one wants to see a director get his wings clipped, especially one that works like Ritchie.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is Ritchie at his weakest, but hopefully isn’t the show of a decline in his abilities as a blockbuster filmmaker. There is so much there to love, it becomes painful and sad to think about how bored you were watching it.