Love him or hate him, Guy Ritchie is a man of style over substance. From his early days of writing and directing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie has always cared more about how his movies look and move than how they are understood. Lock, Stock and Snatch never cared about how the plot stayed together through the movie or what the hell was going on around the main story, it was all about how scenes moved and the cool atmosphere remained untouched. Even with his transition to big budget movies like the Sherlock Holmes movies of late, the confusing and twisting plot was second banana to the distinct look and feel of the movies. The audience didn’t have to understand Ritchie’s movies, they just had to chill out for the ride. Ritchie seems to be sticking to his guns (no pun intended) for his latest remake/adaptation of pop British culture, perhaps something a bit more tailor made for him.
Based off the NBC spy show from 1960s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. drops into 1963 during the Cold War. In the midst of East Berlin, dashing CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) locates Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a mechanic whose father is an engineer of atomic weapons and has been kidnapped by a secret criminal organization. Fearing the new bad guys may be able to build a nuclear bomb, Solo learns he must team up with KGB brute Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and use Teller’s connections to infiltrate the organization and save the world.
Like Ritchie’s previous films, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is very much all about its style. The costumes, set designs, cars and mannerisms are straight out of the swinging 60s. Ritchie and his production team do an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of the era, with everyone trying to outwit each other all to the tune of smooth European jazz and Daniel Pemberton’s groovy score. But, like all Ritchie films, plot and story get shuffled around throughout the film. New plot elements are thrown in on a whim and it never really seems to spark extra interest in the movie. The audience keeps waiting for more action to happen so that the plot can develop. The action does work, especially in an opening car chase and the infiltration of a radar tower. However, the action is just too rare to make the audience shift closer to the screen. It all looks great and Ritchie still knows how to move and edit scenes, but there’s just not enough spark to make it all the way fun.
When the movie does ignite, it’s primarily because of its on-the-ball cast. Henry Cavill, briefly stripped of his Superman attire, is the charismatic kick of the cast as Napoleon Solo. Smooth and slick but never annoying or cony, Cavill shows great leading-man potential (beyond cape and spandex) as he takes everything with the same winning attitude that never gets old. He’s got a great foil in Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin. Stone cold but showing touches of soul, Hammer reminds audiences that The Lone Ranger wasn’t all his fault. He and Cavill have great chemistry, especially in a hilarious scene involving a former-Nazi doctor and his worth to the mission. It’s as if the two are constantly trolling each other, one-upping the other’s spy skills at every turn. The male leads are given an extra boost with Alicia Vikander, months removed from her star-making work in Ex Machina. She kicks both male studs to the curb on occasion and never denies her place in scenes. It’s a real debate as to who the real star of this movie is, as all three leads make their stance in each scene, along with Elizabeth Debicki as the femme fatale of the movie.
While the look and style of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are reminiscent of Sean Connery-era Bond, it’s plot and characters are much more in tune to Roger Moore’s tenure. There’s a sense of wit and romance to the film when it’s not muddled down by its start-and-stop plot. Once again, it’s style over substance as the plot is never worth getting fully invested in. It’s a good looking movie and its cast is more than capable, but there’s never enough spark to make it all kick. Perhaps if it was given an R-rating, there could’ve been more freedom to add more humor and pulpy action to it all. But then again, this is a Guy Ritchie film. A man who spends more time fixing actors’ ties than screenwriters’ inspirations.
Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 4 stars