As Mission Impossible—Rogue Nation closes in on a $300 million worldwide gross, another 1960s-spy-show-turned-movie arrives, in the hope of launching another tentpole franchise. No, it’s not Get Smart, I Spy, The Avengers, The Saint, or The Wild Wild West. All of those have already been chewed up and spit out by Hollywood as more or less botched flops. No, this time, and at long last, it’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., derived from the 1964-1968 NBC series.
One of the bona fide pop culture sensations of the mid-‘60s, along with The Beatles and Batman, U.N.C.L.E. proposed an international law-enforcement agency, the U.N. of espionage. Napoleon Solo (a silky-suave Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (a smoldering David McCallum), the former a brash American and the latter a tightly-wound Russian, ribbed each other while teaming up weekly (Cold War be damned) to save the world—and, usually, a dizzy damsel—from megalomaniacal guest-star villains. James Bond creator Ian Fleming famously contributed Solo’s name (and virtually nothing else), and since TV’s answer to Bond arrived the same year as Goldfinger, U.N.C.L.E. enjoyed a perfect storm of spy mania.
U.N.C.L.E.’s long road to the screen included, two years ago, a near-miss casting of Mission: Impossible’s Tom Cruise as Solo and, four years ago, a scotched iteration that would have been Steven Soderbergh’s cinematic swan song (to the former, whew; to the latter, alas and alack). Instead, we get a version directed by Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) and starring Henry “Superman” Cavill and Armie “The Lone Ranger” Hammer. Brit Cavill’s American accent and Hammer’s Russian one contribute to a mannered stiltedness that helps to drain U.N.C.L.E. of its easy-goes-it escapism and effortless cool. Ritchie and Lionel Wigram’s script honors the original characters just fine, but the leads are lukewarm: leading with his cleft chin and employing cocked eyebrows, cocky smirks, and peacocking strut, Cavill overworks it; containing Illya’s anger issues stemming from "Volatile Personality Disorder" and an Oedipus complex, Hammer succeeds in being somewhat more subtle if lacking in McCallum’s sui generis charisma.
One might well call this prequel reboot “U.N.C.L.E. Begins”: set in 1963, the film tells the tale of Solo and Kuryakin’s first meeting, on opposite sides of the Cold War divide. Whizzing around Checkpoint Charlie in a sequence that culminates in an escape over the Berlin Wall, the two compete for the prize of Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander of Ex Machina), the daughter of a sought-after German rocket scientist. The plot, if at times convoluted and notably wanting a compelling central villain, proves suitable, an excuse for exotic (primarily Italian) locales and fiscally responsible adventures (Soderbergh dropped out over a budgetary disagreement). Despite the picture’s throwback spy sophistication—from glamorous costumes and sets to split screens that are, spy-style, sometimes fake-outs—the mostly unmemorable action sequences suffer from editing that evokes carsickness, and the split-the-difference jokey-serious tone errs, in keeping with its director, on the side of fashion-conscious and smug. In a word, Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. is “stylish,” which is better than the alternative.
It’s also mostly empty, though it has its moments, and mostly the amorous ones: the teasing chemistry of Vikander and Hammer (includes her dancing in her p.j.s and him succumbing in a sexy wrestling match) and the bromantic-comedic and bromantic-dramatic moments when Solo first chooses and later confirms friendship with Kuryakin, changing their dynamic of mutually jealous one-upsmanship. Along with welcome supporting turns by Elizabeth Debicki as a formidable femme fatale, Sylvester Groth as a craven sadist, and Hugh Grant as spy-boss Waverly, there’s almost enough to push the watchable, respectable U.N.C.L.E. into recommended territory. But for better and worse, this isn't the Star Trek reboot: if U.N.C.L.E. is more soundly plotted, it also lacks the brio J.J. Abrams and cast brought to their entertainment-first venture. Instead, it’s a mostly ho-hum near-miss. While it’d be nice to see the material earn a second-chance sequel, and perhaps the cosmopolitan material will travel well enough abroad, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a new U.N.C.L.E. craze.