'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.': Film Review

Not bad, but not good enough. 

Guy Ritchie brings the once-beloved 1960s TV series to the big screen, with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer playing rival spies.

As U.S.-Russian relations go, so, apparently, goes the temperature of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which means that this big-screen revival of the once-hot TV series of the mid-1960s is being served lukewarm. Set during the Cold War and stoked by seductive settings and an equally attractive cast, this would-be Warner Bros. franchise starter gets everything about half-right; conceptually it's got a few things going for it and it's not unenjoyable to sit through, but at the same time, the tone and creative register never feel confident and settled. It's not bad but not quite good enough either. That U.N.C.L.E. was a popular TV show a half-century ago means nothing to young modern audiences, so late summer box-office prospects would appear modest.

For at least the first two of its four seasons (1964-68), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the coolest thing on American network television. Co-conceived by Ian Fleming and originally titled Ian Fleming's Solo just as Bond mania was taking off at the time of Goldfinger, the show nonchalantly paired American and Russian agents working for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement to defeat T.H.R.U.S.H., a sinister organization bent on the usual: global destruction and dominance. Robert Vaughn's Napoleon Solo was the dashing, dark-haired, well-dressed womanizer, while David McCallum's Illya Kuryakin, black turtlenecked and his blond hair worn long, Beatles-style, was the more inward, hard-to-reach heartthrob.

Rather less anachronistically than he recreated late Victorian London in his irksome but popular Sherlock Holmes duo, director and co-writer Guy Ritchie vividly guns the initial action with a wild car chase in the vicinity of an elaborate recreation of Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie in 1963. Coming at each other from rival sides are Solo (Henry Cavill, still looking pretty Supermanish) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, with conventionally cut hair, alas), who's specifically identified as Ukrainian but is no less fanatically committed to the Motherland.

Their mutual object of desire is a beautiful East German auto mechanic (a wonderfully absurd contradiction in terms and no doubt a cinematic first) known as Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose father is a renegade Nazi known to have been Hitler's favorite rocket expert. Solo smoothly captures her first, but Kuryakin furiously nips at their heels during a protracted nocturnal pursuit conducted in Eastern European automobiles, another witty touch given the notorious sluggishness of communist bloc vehicles.

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The chase provides a colorful means for the two committed spies to introduce themselves to one another, as their espionage bosses have temporarily set their ideological differences aside in the interest of apprehending the elusive Dr. Udo Teller. Both sides are betting that the temptation of reuniting with his long-lost daughter will make Teller show his hand, and it's up to the competitive dashing agents to set the trap.

So far, so good, it would seem, except that it's not, exactly. Ritchie and his co-writer Lionel Wigram, who are currently writing a third Holmes installment, have dedicated themselves to soberly respecting the Cold War backdrop (JFK pointedly appears on TV addressing it) and taking their super-villain as seriously as a good Bond film always has. They're also into high-end globe-trotting and slipping in the smart-ass quip when they can, which means occasionally.

But where the film doesn't find secure footing is in settling on the right pitch for the spies' competitiveness vs. cooperation. At its core, the relationship between Solo and Kuryakin is intensely serious; under any other circumstances, they would be trying to kill each other. As that option remains off the table, a different dynamic must be developed, but a modus operandi between them never satisfactorily settles in here.

Solo's background of having made a fortune as a black market antiquities dealer in post-war Europe while mingling with the wealthy and then, when caught, given the choice between prison or working for the CIA, is plausible enough. He's also at ease with the bemused quip and self-assured insight, and Cavill, loosened up a tad from the pressure of trying to persuade the world that he's a legit Man of Steel, is affably likeable as an agent of many talents.

Unfortunately, Kuryakin is more narrowly and imprecisely conceived as a perfect product of the Communist state, a humorless functionary who calls his new comrade "Cowboy," suffers from seizures and spells because he's so tightly wound and must uncomfortably pretend to be Gaby's fiance while trying to flush her father out in Rome. This puts a burden on Hammer to give the guy some charm, but neither he nor the writers have found a disarming way to provide it; he doesn't even have the benefit of McCallum's groovy haircut and wardrobe. 

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And as skillful and attractive as Vikander is (during one section her hairdo and wardrobe make her a near-dead ringer for Julie Christie in Petulia), her character also comes off as too serious and narrowly conceived for too long, putting a damper on the blend of legitimate threat and sophisticated hijinks that Ritchie is trying to achieve. For all the effort put into crafting a distinctive tenor for the familiar proceedings, it all ends up feeling rather rote and sub-Bondian.

That said, some of Ritchie's efforts to put colorful twists on a war horse genre are agreeable, the locations (mostly in Italy) provide a surrogate vacation and the supporting cast generates small ripples of amusement — notably Elizabeth Debicki (the excellent Jordan Baker in the recent The Great Gatsby) as the scheming, elaborate wife of an Italian playboy racing driver niftily impersonated by Luca Calvani, Jared Harris as Solo's demanding agency boss and Hugh Grant as a shadowy espionage string-puller.

Production values are tops and composer Daniel Pemberton's original contributions are overshadowed by a bulging CD's worth of eclectic source music.

Production: Ritchie/Wigram, Davis Entertainment

Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Luca Calvani, Misha Kuznetsov, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant

Director: Guy Ritchie

Screenwriters: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, story by Jeff Kleeman, David Campbell Wilson, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, based on the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Producers: John Davis, Lionel Wigram, Guy Ritchie, Steve Clark-Hall

Executive producers: David Dobkin, Steven Mnuchin

Director of photography: John MaTHIESON

Production designer: Oliver Scholl

Costume designer: Joanna Johnston

Editor: James Herbert

Music: Daniel Pemberton

Casting: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton

PG-13 rating, 116 minutes