1. You need a pretty good reason to resuscitate The Man From U.N.C.L.E.—a ’60s television series that went off the air before Jay Z was born—and I’m afraid Guy Ritchie’s movie version doesn’t have one. Perfectly passable, generic, and inoffensive, it vanishes from your brain almost while you’re watching it. This is strange. The point of bringing back or rebooting an established franchise, at least in theory, is to inspire some sort of passion and/or brand loyalty—to either do something new or studiously recreate what we liked about the original. This film does neither. It’s simply a plodding-straight-ahead “international intrigue” action movie with a few set pieces, some nice period clothes, and not much energy expended by anyone involved. It’s not terrible, but it’s pointless, which is sometimes worse.
2. We’re in the midst of the Cold War, with top CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) sleeping his way through West Berlin and doing jobs for Uncle Sam to pay off his debt to society. (He was a world-class thief.) He ends up tussling with a giant Russian agent named Illya (Armie Hammer), before their respective bosses make them team up to find a former Nazi scientist kidnapped by an evil fascist Italian socialite (Elizabeth Debicki) who’s trying to make a nuclear bomb. You’ll never believe this, but the two men are used to working alone and have wildly clashing styles. And this part’s even wilder: It turns out that they develop a grudging respect for each other. Every story beat—even a “betryal” that, lo, turns out to be something else entirely—is telegraphed from a mile away. This is fill-in-the-blanks storytelling from the onset; the film has zero interest in taking any risks.
3. Ritchie always brings a certain energetic panache to his movies (even when they don’t make any sense), but he dials it back this time: It’s almost like he saw all the mod costumes and speedboats and Hugh Grant, and decided maybe he’d better behave. To be honest, the restraint does him some good. U.N.C.L.E. hums along nicely with a veneer of polish and cool that it doesn’t necessarily earn, and there are a few touches that give it an extra kick. There’s an attempt to breach an impenetrable fortress that is dispensed with in an elegant, well-constructed little montage that’s both period-appropriate and a delight to watch: If Steven Soderbergh had directed that bit—as he meant to, initially, with George Clooney in the leading role—we’d fall all over ourselves praising how clever it is. There’s also some dark humor that’s misplaced, but still not unwelcome: I particularly enjoyed the fate that awaits a German torturer who takes a little too much pride in his work. That Ritchie, the man who gave us Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (not to mention the insane Swept Away remake with his then-wife Madonna), would turn out to be a smooth, professional studio hack is certainly an unlikely outcome, but it’s also a surprisingly pleasant one.
4. The casting is odd. You can see why Soderbergh and Clooney wanted to do this: It’s basically Ocean’s 11 crossed with Mad Men, but with spies. That would have made a lot more sense. The leads here need more dashing and derring-do—it’s not about the action, it’s about the talk. Which is why it’s strange that the two leading men appear cast not for their verbal dexterity, but for their physical magnitude. These are two massive, massive men—Hammer is taller, but Cavill is built like a Trivial Pursuit wedge—to the point where it gets distracting. At one point, in a nice little scene, Cavill postpones entering a fight because he finds French bread and a fine wine in a truck, and stops to savor it; all I could think was, “There’s no way that guy ingests anything other than creatine.” The movie is about two super spies, and they’ve cast two hulking slabs of rippling beef.
It’s not that either is bad. Hammer, who still hasn’t found a great post-Social Network part, has an easy charm; Cavill is trying out a Cary Grant impression to varying degrees of success, but I appreciated the effort. (They also have a random, funny scene where they rigorously debate women’s fashion.) But they’re pumped up to such absurd sizes that it actually weighs down the movie—these guys would basically be the worst spies imaginable, because who can’t spot a professional wrestler from a mile away?
5. There isn’t much urgency here, and I suppose there doesn’t really have to be: This is a mid-August, end-of-summer, everybody-dial-it-back action movie that requests absolutely nothing from you. Not even your attention. It’s designed to be background noise. Which just makes it that much more bizarre that it’s theoretically supposed to kick off a franchise, to rejuvenate a brand. The only thing noteworthy about this is its title and its connection to a TV show that ended nearly 50 years ago. It makes you wonder why they even bothered. Or maybe it’s the other way around: Maybe the only way you can get something this modestly conceived and deeply unambitious made is by connected it to an existing “brand,” even a dead one. This is a casual, lying-around-on-a-Saturday basic-cable rerun that neither harms nor inspires anyone. It stretches and yawns and scratches its ears, and then it’s over. It doesn’t take much to launch a franchise anymore, apparently.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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