2015 is a good year for spy movies: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation was a spectacular thrill ride that bested the previous entries in the MI franchise, and November sees the release of the much-anticipated 24th James Bond film, titled Spectre. In between these two juggernauts Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has arrived, a Cold War spy thriller based on the 1964 TV series of the same name. It stars Man Of Steel‘s Henry Cavill and The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, a CIA and KGB operative respectively, who are forced to work together to avert a nuclear thread. While this simple premise sounds quite promising and could serve as the jumping-off point to a slick spy romp, the movie fails to instill its proceedings with tension or memorable set pieces. The result is a mundane film that’s entirely forgettable.
It’s a shame really, because The Man From U.N.C.L.E. starts out very strong. Solo’s mission to find Alicia Vikander’s Gabriella Teller and get her out of East Berlin is complicated by the presence of Kuryakin and leads to a stylish, fun and riveting car chase during a sequence that finds exactly the right balance between comedy and action. The writing here is also particularly strong: the three main characters are astutely drawn through what they say and how they act, and the performances are fittingly on-point. Cavill’s Solo is a bit of a buffoon, a cocksure ladies man with a casual air and quite the ego, while Hammer’s Kuryakin is the quiet bruiser with the checkered past and a heart in the right place. Vikander then is a very alluring screen presence and her Gaby is a strong woman who can handle herself, knows what she wants, and is prepared to take it. These three are without a doubt the main reason why The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is still mildly entertaining and at times even gripping, but their wonderful performances unfortunately can’t save the film.
Its lackluster plot isn’t the reason why the movie doesn’t work: many spy films thrive on a simple premise and get by fine by just showing you the journey and outstanding skill set of their hero. Ritchie’s got this element covered: Solo’s smoothness when it comes to stealing or handling saves is fun to watch, as is Kuryakin’s prowess in a fight. The buddy cop element that’s added also works very well: since these two agents aren’t anything alike they often have to rely on each other to complete the mission, and their banter and the actor’s chemistry are certainly fun to watch. What’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E.‘s biggest flaw is its tonal inconsistency: it’s a breezy pastiche of the spy genre one moment, a brutal look at World War II the next, and maybe a ’60s music video after. Its fractured nature is only made worse by the occasionally frantic editing, which makes the movie limp along instead of having it move assuredly and speedy like one of its main characters would. Because of it you never feel like there’s anything at stake and this sucks all the tension right out of the film.
It also doesn’t help that the aforementioned car chase is the movie’s best and biggest action scene, which takes place in its first act. After that nothing spectacular happens for long stretches of the film. While The Man From U.N.C.L.E. tries to compensate for that by offbeat intermissions, like a random but funny bedroom encounter, it can’t mask the fact that the movie is sorely lacking in the action department. A factory shootout is utterly unmemorable and the boat chase that follows isn’t anything to write home about either, while a sudden twist does get you smiling. Another third act chase is edited to death, leading to a very anticlimactic ending to the film. As good as it looks and as charming as its leads are, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. just doesn’t get the action right: it’s framing and choreography is off, making the movie entirely unimpressive in this department. It’s strange how Paul Feig’s Spy starring Melissa McCarthy, a comedy film and spoof, was much more successful what the action’s concerned; its action scenes were thrilling, impressive and clearly inspired by genre staples. And while The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also tries to go for laughs, it’s never laugh-out-loud funny; an occasional grin is all it manages to pry loose from its audience.
Instead of thrilling and funny, Ritchie’s movie is mostly boring and messy. Its leads and locales do entertain, though. 5/10