I’ve literally just come from a multiplex showing of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and already I’ve forgotten it. I seem to recall not disliking it while it was unspooling, so I guess that’s good? Now, though, I’m struggling to come up with a reason for the existence of this movie at all. Was there a demand for a big-screen version of the 60s TV show that I was unaware of? Or has Hollywood simply run out of old properties to do over? Is there a trend thinktank working somewhere in New York or London that is desperately trying to get us all into Cold War chic so that Target and ASOS can shift some orange A-line dresses and oversized novelty telephones? Is there a propaganda workgroup at the Pentagon that wants to distract us from ISIL and mass surveillance and hopes we’ll get nostalgic about international nuclear brinkmanship?
Something about Italian industrialist Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki: The Great Gatsby, A Few Best Men) who is building a nuclear bomb for a reason that’s not very clear. But later we learn that she already has her very own private island-slash-secret lair, and supervillainy was still a growth industry in the early 1960s; she is an ambitious woman so why not? The Americans send in an agent, and the Soviets send in an agent, and they have to work together because rogue nukes wielded by crazy beautiful ladies totally ruin the nice battle-of-the-superpowers thing the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have going, maybe. It would have been nice if the film — written by director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, RocknRolla) with Lionel Wigram (Sherlock Holmes) — thought to slip in just a little political commentary about WMDs or power squabbles or anything, really, but this is just pure popcorn nonsense with a uranium macguffin as CIA man Napoleon Solo and KGB man Illya Kuryakin run around East Berlin and Rome insulting each other and rescuing each other and male-bonding each other. Nothing they say or do ever quite reaches the level of the actually funny: it’s more sort of vaguely amusing almost, like they’re in a sitcom that forgot to add the laugh track. Both Henry Cavill (Man of Steel, The Cold Light of Day) as Solo and Armie Hammer (Entourage, The Lone Ranger) as Kuryakin look like they’re auditioning for the next James Bond reboot, which isn’t automatically terrible: they are very handsome men and if nothing else, this is two hours of lovely eye candy. But the overall affect is like Guy Ritchie shot a spy-themed fashion spread for GQ.
Alicia Vikander (Testament of Youth, Ex Machina) is also very pretty, but she doesn’t have a whole lot to do: she exists in the story because her Gaby Teller is the daughter of the former Nazi rocket scientist and nuclear-bomb maker working with Vinciguerra, and everyone thinks she can lead the Good Guys in the right direction. She’s smart and capable, but she doesn’t get to see anywhere near as much action, or use anywhere near as much of her brains, as the guys do. Perhaps in the sequel she’ll get parity.
Of course there’s going to be a sequel. This movie doesn’t even get around to setting up the spy agency known as U.N.C.L.E. until the end credits, so neither Solo nor Kuryakin is the man from it here. Which is fairly emblematic of the movie itself: it never quite comes into its own as it scrambles around trying to figure out what it wants to be.