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Alicia Vikander, Armie Hammer, and Henry Cavill in THE MAN FROM UNCLE

In The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer play the characters of—respectively—Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Solo is American, Kuryakin is Russian and they are rivals who must work together to defeat an evil greater than their past rivalry. The film is set in 1963, and Wikipedia tells me that the acronym stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. The movie is directed by Guy Ritchie and co-written by the director with Lionel Wigram.

The movie starts promisingly enough with a dash through the streets of East Berlin as Solo extracts a young woman named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from Communist territory to prevent her from falling into the hands of the Russians and all that such an eventuality may entail. The greater evil I mentioned earlier is the threat of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of Nazi-sympathizers who survived the World War. In this case they are the Vinciguerras, Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), and they are dangerous.

So after a bit of tussling and name-calling, Gaby, Illya and Napoleon waltz into Rome to begin a two-pronged attacked to infiltrate the Vinciguerra premises and do what is necessary to prevent the weapon from falling into enemy hands.

For the most part The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a handsomely mounted romp that provides the dash and glamour of a 60s-set piece. Ms. Vikander is dressed in the appropriate fashions and performs like a debutante who must take her place in high society with the requisite amount of hauteur. Mr. Hammer exudes the necessary coiled intensity while Mr. Cavill delivers enough lines with the hint of a smirk to have us consider the possibility that he is capable of something other than the pain he embodies in the Man of Steel movie. The casual insouciance of George Clooney he most certainly does not possess but he hides it well with square-jawed bemusement.

Here are the reasons though, why this movie falters:

  • The lack of a credible villain. Victoria Vinciguerra is no Brick Top, Bullet-Tooth Tony, Boris the Blade, Hatchet Harry, or even Lenny Cole. No credible villain equals lack of a credible threat.
  • During the boat escape sequence, and several times afterwards: the movie goes from looking like a regular movie to something from our early HD nightmares like Collateral, or Public Enemies. That really does take a person ‘out of the movie.’
  • Cheap shot I guess, but I’ll take it: maybe being married to Madonna for eight years does something to a guy’s sense of romance, or perhaps Mr. Ritchie never really knew how to write boy-girl banter because the stuff between Illya and Gaby in that hotel room is quite ouch-inducing. No wonder the girl fell asleep the first chance she got.
  • Mr. Ritchie’s narrative hi-jinks are on display yet again, in the scene with the drowned out dialogue that is replayed later on for dramatic effect, and the scene with the cross cutting that draws words spoken in the background into the foreground so that we the audience can understand what the good guys’ plan was to rid the world of the bad guys. It is clever but it delivers a denouement that is less than satisfactory. And I say this as someone who truly detests an endlessly long gunfight sequence that offers zip in terms of audience excitement.

So full marks for style and visual pizazz, but the film was more than a little bit lacking in the “oh this is something I’m going to be recommending to everyone I know” department.

I for one would never have guessed that of the former collaborators Matthew Vaughn would evolve into a greater visual stylist, with the more enjoyable spy film.