The Man from U.N.C.L.E. takes the origin approach to reviving the classic 60s spy series. It begins with CIA Agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) heading into East Berlin on a mission to extract auto mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the niece of a former Nazi scientist that has gone missing. There to stop him is KGB agent Iliya Kuryakin. After a bit of a kerfuffle, Solo manages to get away, only to be told after the mission that he has to work with Kuryakin on a mission to infiltrate an Italian organization with Nazi ties that is trying to build its own nuclear device.
Style is the watchword, and being cool is the order of the day. The movie is in fact so busy trying to look cool that it often forgets to be exciting. It often eschews any sense of danger in favor of self-indulgent sequences that further reinforce the idea that these agents are hip and unflappable. And while there is some merit to capturing that particular sense of Cold War-era cool, the lack of variation causes the film to be more plodding and lifeless than it really ought to be.
The film treats plot with abject indifference. There are parts of the film where clarity is given up for the sake of injecting more style. There’s more than one sequence in here that employs flashback revelations, the film going back to minutes prior to clarify what exactly went on in the last scene. The whole point appears to be that the characters are cleverer than you might have initially thought based on the scene that was just shown. But the thing is, the revelations are rarely a surprise, and these sequences could have been simplified by simply showing the characters being clever. On more than one occasion, this narrative setup just makes certain scenes more difficult to watch.
To be fair, it really is all quite cool. All aspects of the production really help convey the general hipness of the era. The production design is especially good, the fashion, the sets and the gadgetry really creating a sense of place. The problem is that this often takes precedence over the more basic demands of storytelling. The characters never really feel like they’re in danger. There is a sequence in this picture, for example, that has solo in the clutches of a mad torturer. Rather than convey the peril of the possibility of being slowly killed, the film instead goes into flashback mode as the torturer relates his entire life story through a pretty clever narrative device.
And that’s really it: the film prefers to be clever at all times. It lacks the fizzy, tense energy of a really good spy thriller. The cool carries on in the performances. Henry Cavill never quite registers as American stuck inside those structured Savile Row suits. He’s terribly charming, but there’s still a stuffiness to character that he can’t quite overcome. Armie Hammer is hobbled with a character that feels more like a collection of tics. Alicia Vikander makes an impression, but the character is ultimately too shallow to really stick. Hugh Grant stands out for downplaying the machismo and saying much more with less.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is at best a visual treat. There are all sorts of clever things being done with the camera here, a plethora of technical tricks that meld well with the very distinct sense of design. But given all that, it still isn’t very exciting. It is, in fact, a little too cool, a little too stylish. The cleverness overrides everything else, the plot and the action falling by the wayside as three-piece suits and gimmicky sequences take to the fore. The movie can be impressive, but it’s very rarely fun.