The character played by Alicia Vikander in the Cold War spy caper “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” – a preposterously sexy and sophisticated East German grease monkey named Gaby Teller – is described on screen as “a lethal combination of beauty, brains and ambition.” If only the film were so well-rounded.
Oh, it’s lethal, all right, but not in a good way. Although “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” has ambitions of honoring the TV spy series on which it’s based, it fails to evoke any of that show’s 1960s cool. It’s a creaky, bloated simulacrum of the groovy past, where it should be a quick, slick and debonair re-imagining of it. Forget beauty and brains. This “U.N.C.L.E.” is not just decrepit but ugly and dumb.
Let’s start with the theory that the movie is, as it purports to be, an action film. After a brisk and mildly pulse-quickening prologue, in which CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) whisks Gaby over the Berlin Wall – into a waiting get-away van, via a zip line – the film pivots 180 degrees into a weirdly dull drawing-room comedy, set largely in hotel suites and posh clubs and devoid of derring-do. When it finally gets going again, close to the end, with a chase scene, the pursuit is filmed so poorly that the director, Guy Ritchie, has to resort to using multiple split screens to jazz it up.
Seeing the same lame thing from five angles does not make it better.
As for the plot, in which Solo teams up with a KGB agent named Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to retrieve a nuclear warhead before it falls into the hands of a mutual enemy: It is a tedious exercise in bickering. Hammer, in the role created by David McCallum, is completely lacking in the quality that made Illya so popular, i.e., his sex appeal. Speaking with an accent as thick as borscht, and lumbering like a Soviet shot putter, the actor comes across as closer to another small-screen icon of the ’60s: Lurch, the Frankensteinian butler from “The Addams Family.”
For his part, Cavill looks for all the world like he’d be happier back in Superman’s cape than in the ill-fitting bespoke suits into which his beefcake has been stuffed. He’s supposed to be the witty one of the pair, but the only repartee he seems capable of delivering with anything close to panache is the film’s parade of dirty double entendres. (It’s like his dialogue was lifted from a Tinder chat.)
Ritchie, who co-wrote the script with his “Sherlock Holmes” collaborator Lionel Wigram, apparently thinks the audience is just as unsophisticated. When the setting switches from Berlin to the Eternal City, the on-screen title informs us that we’re now in “Rome, Italy” (just in case you thought the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps were in Rome, New York). In what seems like a half-baked nod to the pedigree of the TV series, which was created with the modest assistance of James Bond’s Ian Fleming, Gaby and Illya – who are posing as fiances – check into a hotel room numbered 707.
It’s less an homage than a math error.
But the saddest thing is that the film is set up like an origin story, ending with the formation of the titular international spy agency – which stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. The threat that this mess of a movie might be followed by a sequel is enough to make anyone cry uncle.
‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’
Rated: PG-13 for action violence, suggestive material and brief nudity
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander
Directed by: Guy Ritchie