In an era when fast pacing, explosions and superheroes rule the box office, the big-budget, big-screen updating of classic ‘60s TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. provides an old-fashioned experience. Replete with designer suits, suggestive repartee and action more akin to a Roger Moore Bond outing than a Daniel Craig one, it’s not what you would call the most fulfilling of blockbusters. It almost feels like an antidote for those who want their big-budget films to take things a little easier.
Taking over the iconic roles once played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum is Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, two equally skilled CIA and KGB agents who must reluctantly team up and work together, alongside the alluring and enigmatic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), to take down a mysterious terrorist organization who are building nuclear weapons in preparation for an attack.
This summer has already delivered a major spy movie in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, a film that provided both epic spectacle and enjoyably playful interplay between its team of characters. U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t seem to be much interested in the former as it delivers disappointingly pedestrian action sequences that are either marred by a distracting CGI sheen or lack any sort of real power (or both). Save for an admittedly inventive opening sequence, which sees the two leads literally lock cars and spin around a war-torn Russian street, it’s strangely lacking in impact and energy when it comes to throwing down with that most crowded of action-packed blockbuster crowds.
The laid back approach employed by Guy Ritchie – who most recently gave us two sparklingly energetic Sherlock Holmes movies – is pleasing to a point but you do wish it would just get on with things a bit more than it does. Even the baddies’ threat of world destruction doesn’t feel like that much of a big deal. Outright thrills, then, are evidently far down this film’s checklist of priorities, instead far more interested in the overall style of the era in which it’s set; the suits, the hair, the make-up, the way people carry themselves. If it was set in modern times it would be too busy taking selfies and posting them on Instagram to worry about much else.
It has personality and charm to spare in the style departmant, thanks in no small part to the performances of the leads. Cavill gets a chance to let loose in a way that any fans of the Christopher Reeve era of Superman would like to see him allowed to do as the Man of Steel, while Hammer is a lot of fun as the yin to Cavill’s slick spy yang (if you can forgive the distractingly over-the-top Russian accent). Their banter is easily the highlight of the film, loaded as it is with plentiful supplies of innuendo and macho one-upmanship.
Then there’s Vikander as the professional – and hintingly romantic – object of the two men’s mission. It would be quicker to name the movies she isn’t a part of these days – when was the last time an actress shot to fame and so many major roles in such a short period of time? – and she fits perfectly into this slick and glossy ‘60s spy world. She plays what could have been a trite, predictable character with a nice sense of ambiguity so you’re never quite sure whose side she’s on and what she’ll do next. Even Hugh Grant, whose persona that made him such a phenomenon in the ‘90s doesn’t seem to have much of a place in today’s cinema age, shines in a small but crucial role.
Ultimately what we have with this simultaneous update and throwback of an old idea is an experience that’s more style than substance, more Paris fashion week than thrilling blockbuster, no matter how many lacking action sequences it throws at you to convince its both in equal measure. But the style is glamourous enough, the interplay between the solidly capable cast charming enough and the tone entertainingly light-hearted enough that it just about gets away with it all. It’s clearly setting things up in hope of a franchise and if it does, here’s hoping they give it a bit more oomph next time.