There’s a cheeky sequence in the middle of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that co-writer and director Guy Ritchie should’ve used to set the tone for the entire film. It’s 1963, and CIA Agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and his reluctant partner, KGB Agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), are escaping from a secure facility in a boat at night. Napoleon is thrown from the boat and swims ashore, stowing away inside a truck. There’s nothing he can do to help Illya now. So when Napoleon spots wine, a sandwich and grapes in a basket on the driver’s seat, he nonchalantly helps himself, all the while watching in the rear view mirrors as Illya fights for his life. The moment is the ideal combination of action, comedy and whimsy, and more scenes like this would’ve been welcome.
The reason Napoleon and Illya are there — and working together during the Cold War — is because a mutual enemy possesses enriched uranium and therefore has the ability to make nuclear bombs, and they believe the uranium is inside the facility. On a larger scale, Napoleon’s official responsibility on the mission is to investigate Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) and Alexander (Luca Calvani) Vinciguerra, who run a shipping company as a front for production of the bomb. Illya’s role is to pretend to be Berlin car mechanic Gaby’s (Alicia Vikander) fiancé, because her father and Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) are known to be working for the Vinciguerras.
Hammer watched the TV series of the same name that aired on NBC from 1964-’68 before starting production, but Cavill did not. Doesn’t matter. Many who see the film will have no familiarity with the series, so (as is always the case) Ritchie’s (Sherlock Holmes) movie either works on its own or it doesn’t.
For the most part, it does. The tone is light thanks to Cavill, who plays Napoleon like a laid-back James Bond who never panics — he’s also an expert pickpocket. If you know Cavill only as the bland Superman in Man Of Steel, you’re in for a treat. Hammer has less success as Illya because the character is more serious, making him a bit of a downer. But in fairness, the story needs this in order to stay grounded in reality and not deviate into territory. As for Vikander, whose star is on the rise after Ex Machina earlier this year, she holds up well opposite the leading men, but far too much time is spent in damsel-in-distress mode — more could and should have been done with her character.
Affable humor is nicely interspersed throughout, highlighted by Napoleon and Illya arguing about fashion. The action is unspectacular, but it wisely combines the men’s physical prowess with their smarts. Further, the typical Guy Ritchie traits of quick action, a peppy soundtrack and flashbacks that take us back a few minutes to show how a resolution transpired all help to keep the movie engaging, though more is needed. There’s little suspense and almost no emotional investment, making it hard to give viewers the desired result.
After you see the movie, you’ll be wondering what U.N.C.L.E. means: It’s an acronym for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. The reason you’ll be wondering is because there’s no mention of it until literally the last word of the film, and I had to look up what the acronym meant. This also means, box office gods willing, there will be a sequel.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a harmlessly enjoyable lark. It’s also underwhelming, and therefore earns just a moderate recommendation. In other words, pay movie theater prices only if you really, really want to see it. Otherwise, home video will suit this just fine.