The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a stylish throwback to the television series that ran from 1964-68 that doesn’t take itself too seriously but avoids the trap of becoming a spoof of itself – a trap that the series itself befell during the middle of its original run. Owing a lot to James Bond author Ian Fleming who contributed quite a bit to the series’ premise (including the name of the main character Napoleon Solo), there is a touch of 007 charm to the film but it never quite hits the memorable nodes of Bond’s onscreen adventures; however, given its Cold War 1960’s setting, the film smartly offers an ambient contrast to the many other contemporary spy-centric thrillers of late, differentiating it from the Bourne, Mission: Impossible, and even the current run of James Bond films. It never reaches the outright homages or outrageousness of Kingsman but it doesn’t need to. In fact, the film’s biggest misstep is that it plays it too safe (a trait at odds with director Guy Ritchie‘s usual approach).
When the world is threatened with nuclear attack from a mysterious organization, it is up to ex-thief American CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henery Cavill) and Russion KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to form a reluctant camaraderie to take down the opposition. Aided by German defector (and auto-mechanic) Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the estranged daughter of a kidnapped Nazi scientist, the three race against the clock to stop global disaster – that is if they can trust each other.
While the film sports some amusing individual scenes (such as a creative interrogation sequence punctuated by perhaps the funniest moment in the film or a dangerous boatchase complemented by an impromptu dinner and drinks), it lacks in plot development and suspense. The action scenes are sadly underwhelming and at times visually disparate from the film’s tone (such as a murky fistfight in the rain where the camera seems more interested in following the rainfall and rainbowy lens-flare than the fight choreography). Rather, the film sparks to life whenever it accepts it 1960’s vibe such as the wonderful score by Daniel Pemberton (with calculated use of Jerry Goldsmith’s television theme), colorful fashion, and a few enjoyable uses of split screen.
Henry Cavill has the look nailed down (the man knows how to wear a suit) but his delivery is at times stilted which has the unfortunate effect of downplaying many of his punchlines. Armie Hammer has the right physicality and intensity for the role despite a somewhat unfortunate Russian accent. The halfhearted attempt at crafting the ongoing tension of whether or not they will ultimately kill one another due to their respective secret orders never rings true. Instead, it clangs superfluously. Hugh Grant fairs best by hitting the right tone as Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E., with the perfect balance of intrigue and fun without being overly tongue-in-cheek (although the role is basically an extended cameo).
Overall, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a stylistic but mediocre diversion. Coming out directly on the heels of the superior Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (starring Tom Cruise who was once attached to star in this film) will likely bring about many unfortunate comparisons that may hurt its success. As the start potential film series, it’s a passable but generally flaccid beginning that raises the question if anyone will be crying for more U.N.C.L.E.