Having dragged down the great Sherlock Holmes to our world of short-attention-span cinema, Guy Ritchie now turns his camera on a fondly remembered TV series from the 1960s.
And, to give credit where it’s due, he had the good sense to go easy on his usual hyperkinesis. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” isn’t particularly memorable, but it introduces some interesting ideas and avoids the most headache-inducing elements of this director’s style.
The original was television’s answer to the James Bond craze. Unlike the overtly satiric “Get Smart,” “U.N.C.L.E.” (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) took a dry, tongue-in-cheek approach to international spying.
And in Napoleon Solo (portrayed back in the day by Robert Vaughn) the series gave us an impossibly unruffled, cooler-than-cool protagonist who could view his own imminent demise with sardonic indifference. The series was so huge it spawned action figures, toy guns and much more — one of the lunchboxes even has a home at the Smithsonian now.
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Ritchie and a small army of writers give us an origin story that is less impressive for its dramatic elements than for its painstaking re-creation of swinging Europe in the ’60s.
Things get off to a busy start when the nattily dressed Solo (Henry Cavill, the current Superman) enters squalid East Berlin to spirit Gaby (“Ex Machina’s” Alicia Vikander), a tomboyish auto mechanic, over the Berlin Wall to freedom.
Their escape is almost foiled by a Soviet agent (Armie Hammer), who with his slow-burn, hulking presence and almost superhuman strength seems a close relation to Robert Shaw’s assassin in “From Russia With Love.”
Solo is a former international art thief who opted for CIA work rather than a long prison term. He needs Gaby’s help to locate her estranged father, a nuclear scientist being held by terrorists intent on making their own warhead.
The bomb makers have so alarmed D.C. and Moscow that the two enemies establish a joint force to address the problem. Solo will be partnered with his nemesis from back in East Berlin, Illya Kuryakin, who seethes at Solo’s unapologetic decadence.
The possibilities here are legion. The movie could have become a guys’ version of “Ninotchka” with the sullen, doctrinaire commie seduced by Western affluence. At the very least it could have been an odd-couple buddy flick with the hedonistic Solo and the all-business Kuryakin butting heads.
Except that nothing like that materializes. This “U.N.C.L.E.” is focused on plotting almost to a fault. Which is too bad, because there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before.
Nor is there much relief in the characters. Cavill certainly has the right look, but Solo’s smug aloofness — entertaining in the 40 minutes of a TV show — wears thin in a feature. One starts to lose interest in a film whose hero is so, well, shallow.
Faring better is Hammer’s Kuryakin, who behind his Schwarzeneggerish facade is revealed to have demons of his own.
Vikander is mostly window dressing, but she’s able to make her clumsily conceived character seem important. A small triumph.
The bad guys are instantly forgettable.
The real heroes, in fact, are production designer Oliver Scholl and costumer Joanna Johnston, whose work beautifully evokes both Iron Curtain oppressiveness and Euro-trash excess. Even the titles help set the mood by throwing out dozens of iconic Cold War images. At certain points Ritchie employs split-screen montages (remember “Grand Prix”?).
The main problem with “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is its tone. We can’t take this stuff seriously, yet Ritchie misses all sorts of opportunities to make the movie fun. The result isn’t particularly satisfying as either adventure or comedy.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
‘THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.’
Rated PG-13 | Time: 1:56