‘The audience never goes out humming the scenery.’ So goes a stereotypical criticism of modern musical theater productions that lack any memorable songs. The same applies to movies, of course, especially one as dramatically inert as Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a lame yet extremely stylish film adaptation of a television series.
The series was created in 1963 and first broadcast in 1964, on the heels of the explosive success of the first James Bond adventure, 1962’s Dr. No.. Ian Fleming, the writer who invented 007 in the 1950’s, contributed concepts to the television series that was eventually known as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., revolving around two espionage agents, an American (Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn) and a Soviet (Ilya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum), who work for an international organization headed by a Brit (Leo G. Carroll).
The new movie is an orgin story, teaming Solo (Henry Cavill) and Ilya (Armie Hammer) for the first time. Their mission is to foil plans by evil people to deploy nuclear weapons in Europe. To do so, the competitive agents work with Gaby (Alicia Vikander), a German who is the daughter (or niece) of a nuclear engineer working for the evil people.
Director Ritchie also wrote the screenplay with Lionel Wigram, and, after a decently exciting opening sequence, it becomes apparent that the main focus will be on the politely bickering relationship between Solo and Ilya, with Gaby along for the ride, nobly struggling to ignite chemistry with the stoic Ilya as they pretend to be husband and wife.
Cavill and Hammer are certainly good-looking and physically fit men and, as in their past roles, they cut fine images on a big screen without making any deeper impressions. It could well be that that is intentional in this particular movie, but the script doesn’t give them dialogue that holds any interest — it’s not witty or even bluntly comic, to my ear — and so their time together could easily be mistaken for the same experience as watching two mannequins in a department store window: one glance tells the viewer everything. Hammer is so wooden that his stronger emotions must be telegraphed through the excessive use of editing (cut by James Herbert) and pounding musical cues by composer Daniel Pemberton.
(To give credit where it’s due, the highly-buffed surfaces look splendid, thanks to cinematographer John Mathieson, production designer Oliver Scholl, and their respective crews.)
Vikern steals the movie, though it’s petty larceny at best. She is very much a supporting player, though her verve and energy could well have boosted the proceedings as a whole if she had been elevated to a lead role. Then again, it really doesn’t matter who is an obstensible lead during the action sequences, which are shredded beyond the point of reason or logic, or even coherence, admittedly part and parcel of Ritchie’s blithering directorial style over the years.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has style to spare, but that’s not very nourishing, even if all one wants from a movie is a quick bite to eat.
The film is now playing in theaters throughout Dallas.