“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is yet another espionage thriller in the same year as “Mission Impossible,” “Spy,” “Kingsman,” and the end-of-year Bond flick. Based on the television series from the mid-60s, director/co-writer Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes” 2009) creates nothing memorable, but style over substance can still make for summer fun.
For the uninitiated, popular Bond films of yesteryear begat tongue-in-cheek U.N.C.L.E., starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum (NCIS). U.N.C.L.E., in turn, begat “Get Smart,” as slapstick farce. Now, revisiting the cold war, suave CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are bitter enemies ordered to become reluctant partners and evolve into the odd couple of espionage.
Their joint mission is to eliminate a mysterious criminal organization proliferating nuclear weapons. Set in exotic Italian locales, the premise allows Ritchie to deliver exciting chase scenes, witty exchanges and a little romance. Cavill recently played Superman and Hammer, The Lone Ranger. Neither was that successful and together aren’t much better, but they are reasonably charismatic, charming and likeable.
No prior knowledge of the half-century old series is required, as the premise has changed and action starts right from the initial scenes. It’s not quite up to the level of its counterparts, but if you just came for a good time, it will deliver the goods. Director Ritchie has his shortcomings, but this is actually more entertaining than his “Sherlock.”
Cavill, a Brit, plays the American Solo, sufficiently cool, aloof and arrogant, while the American Hammer, as Russian Kuryakin, is cold, efficient and persistent. Adding to the fun, German femme fatale, Gaby, is played by Swede Alicia Vikander (“Ex-Machina”). Finally, Hugh Grant plays boss man Waverly (formerly played by Leo G. Carroll).
Almost every A-list star was considered for the lead role. Clooney was cast but dropped due to illness. Cruise was asked, but instead chose last week’s Mission Impossible. Cavill had won the role of Kuryakin, but was bumped to the lead role and Hammer, who was disastrous as the Lone Ranger, filled in. Hammer also finished second to Cavill for “Superman,” but is infinitely more serious and credible as Kuryakin.
Vaughn, who played the original Napoleon Solo, had also played in “Superman III” (1983). On TV’s “NCIS,” Ducky (McCallum) was asked by Gibbs what he looked like as a young man. Ducky coyly responded with the inside joke, “Like Ilya Kuryakin.” The production used real equipment salvaged from the 1963 television series, including actual vintage clothing used as costumes in this film.
U.N.C.L.E. is an acronym for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Taking place just after the Cuban missile crisis, this is an origin story the TV show never explained. Ritchie kept this a ’60s period piece in order to have some fun with the costumes, jazzy tunes and “La Dolce Vita” glamour of Italy, a la Federico Fellini.
The actors were encouraged to ad lib. In one intimate scene, Gaby asks the straight-laced Kuryakin, “You don’t want to dance, but do you want to wrestle?” Later, after a setback, Waverly asks Solo, “For a special agent, you’re not having a very special day, are you?” There’s no shoe phone, but there is a humorous torture scene, go figure.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is 116 minutes and rated PG-13 for action violence, suggestive content and partial nudity. It has a great look and feel, and the leads are charming, which probably set expectations higher than the result. It’s not a bad movie and never dull. Worst case, it’s pleasant, amusing and mildly entertaining.
Sure, this caricature of the one-time TV series did not make a memorable blockbuster, but the story sets up one or more sequels. In fairness, it establishes enough potential to possibly be so much more next time around. However, some are ready to say enough already and already crying, “Uncle!”
Ron’s Rating: B Leigh’s Rating: C