With the Mission: Impossible film series on its fifth wildly successful entry and counting, it seems only natural that we’d have another film reboot of a ’60s spy thriller TV show. Ironically, this weekend brings us one such adaptation that’s been in development hell since 1993, a good three years before Mission: Impossible first hit screens.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. stars up-and-coming talents Henry Cavill (the guy currently playing Superman) and Armie Hammer (the guy who was inches away from playing Batman and has since done very well for himself). We’ve also got such promising and beautiful talents as Alicia Vikander (who blew everyone away with Ex Machina) and Elizabeth Debicki (unfairly absent from multiplexes since her fantastic turn in The Great Gatsby two years ago). Last but not least, our director/co-writer/producer for tonight is Guy Ritchie, an incredible filmmaker whose attempt at a Sherlock Holmes franchise appears to have stalled out for the foreseeable future. Speaking of which, co-writer/producer Lionel Wigram makes his screenwriting debut here after helping with the story on Sherlock Holmes (2009).
To recap, I just listed three Brits, an American, a Swede, and a Frenchwoman. That’s a very European lineup for a Cold War-era story about an American and a Russian. In which the American is played by a Brit and the Russian is played by an American. Questions of race aside, the cast and crew is undeniably loaded with talent.
And what did we get for all of it? A movie that’s enjoyable, yet severely — almost fatally — flawed.
The film takes place sometime in the ’60s, back when Nazis were still conveniently lurking about and an American/Russian partnership would still have some measure of Cold War tension. In this case, both nations are teaming up because a former Nazi rocket scientist has found a cheap and easy means of enriching uranium. Which means that anyone could potentially make a bomb if they knew how. The scientist and his knowledge have fallen into the hands of Victoria Vinciguerra (Debicki), an arms dealer who’s out to sell the formula to the highest bidder, along with a nuclear warhead made as a proof of concept.
In the other corner are our three heroes. Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is an American soldier turned art thief who’s working off a sizeable prison sentence as one of the CIA’s top agents. Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) joined the KGB as a child and quickly became their best agent after his parents were imprisoned in disgrace. Then there’s Gabby Teller (Vikander), the lovely daughter of our missing Nazi rocket scientist and a master engineer in her own right.
Let’s start with the Solo/Kuryakin interplay, since that really is the main attraction. Obviously, the two don’t trust each other, any more than their governments trust each other. But the differences go much deeper than that. We can see right from the outset that Solo stays impeccably cool under pressure, while Kuryakin is a hothead who can barely keep his temper under control. Solo is a charmer with a light touch while Kuryakin has all the subtlety of a grenade. One’s the strategist, one’s the muscle. So it’s easy to see how they complement each other and why they don’t get along.
Their bickering, all told, is infuriatingly hit-and-miss. Sometimes it works (when they trade tracking devices, for instance), sometimes it doesn’t work (squabbling over fashion choices, of all things), and sometimes their dick-measuring is simply not worth the trouble (their attempted uranium heist). Though Cavill and Hammer are at least entertaining to watch, I’ll grant them that.
As for the female leads, both of these women prove why they deserve to be bona fide stars. Vikander is incredibly charming, and Debicki has a smoldering screen presence. Alas, neither one of these women get to kick nearly as much ass as their male costars, and I was disappointed that neither one of them got a decent action scene. Except for the one at the start, when Gabby is running away from Kuryakin while Solo does most of the work, and I’m not counting that.
Jarred Harris and Hugh Grant both make appearances and both are utterly wasted. Sylvester Groth leaves a bigger impression, for God’s sake.
Still, the real star of this film is Guy Ritchie, whose direction is positively dripping with style. The shot designs, the subtitles, the split-screens, the sound design, and the score were all deliberately crafted with a kind of faux-’60s style that pays all kinds of dividends. The editing, however, could have been a bit tighter — there were one or two action sequences that might have been easier to follow. There’s also a speedboat chase sequence that’s meant to double as an extended joke, and it’s not cut together in a way that’s nearly as effective as it probably should have been.
But the main problems I have are with the script. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good enough at first — the proceedings are a lot of fun to start, with some neat one-liners and double entendres worthy of a light spy thriller. And again, the jokes are great when they land.
The third act, however, is regrettably weak. The plot starts to get way too predictable, which is death to any spy thriller. What’s even worse is that looking back at how the ending unfolds, the villain practically defeats herself. That’s a huge letdown, given how smart and powerful the villain was established to be, and it makes for one sorry anticlimax.
Last but not least, this turns out to be one of those films that pretty much tells the audience outright that this was only a prelude to the story the filmmakers really wanted to tell. It’s not really a sequel tease so much as it’s outright begging for a sequel. And I’ve long since stopped trusting a franchise that begun in such a way. Either the sequel doesn’t materialize or the next film turns out to be nothing more than a pitch for the one after that.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is certainly an entertaining film, stylish and superbly cast, with enough action and comedy to be well worth your ticket price. And given how crowded this genre is (with Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation still in theaters and Kingsman released earlier this year, and Furious Seven a few months ago as well, if that counts), it’s no small feat that the movie is unique and enjoyable enough to stand out from the pack.
Even so, this is hardly a perfect film and it’s damn near sunk by problems in the third act. I wouldn’t say that it’s worth a sequel, and it sure as hell isn’t worth the IMAX premium.