“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”: An action movie that doesn’t break a sweat

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”: An action movie that doesn’t break a sweat

Sick of summer blockbusters? So is Guy Ritchie, apparently. His Man from U.N.C.L.E. proceeds about its popcorn-movie business so laconically that it’s hardly even finished buttoning its cuffs before it’s time for the ending credits to roll. Ritchie is known for putting a clever spin on crime thrillers, but some moviegoers may find this new spy flick is too clever by half: not a single scene proceeds in conventional A-to-B manner, to the point where you may find yourself wondering whether you’ve watched an actual movie or just a very expensive set of quotation marks.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is relatively fresh fodder in this reboot-sodden season: the TV show, which ran from 1964 to 1968, has managed to make it 50 years without a single remake. The original series continues to run in syndication—my mom, who religiously followed the original run, still watches it—but writer/director Ritchie and his co-writer Lionel Wigram can still safely assume that a large majority of their audience won’t be walking into the theater with a long list of U.N.C.L.E. touchpoints they need to hit.

Thus, Ritchie and Wigram have made fairly free with their original source material, dropping conventions like the episodes’ trademark four-part structure and reconceiving the character of Illya Kuryakin, the Russian agent paired with American counterpart Napoleon Solo to fight international crime. Mom remembers Illya, who was always her favorite, as “kind of a nerd,” but here, as played by Armie Hammer, he’s kind of a thug: a brutally strong Soviet with barely repressed rage. As Solo, Henry Cavill is so debonair that he makes even Hugh Grant—who also shows up, as a British intelligence officer—look positively like a Neanderthal.

The stateless-terror premise of the original series would seem to open the door to all kinds of contemporary concerns, but since this update actually turns the clock back, to 1963, we’re in handy chronological range of film’s favorite foils: the Nazis, in this case represented by some unreconstructed Aryans (led by Elizabeth Debicki, borrowing the porcelain pout of Iggy Azalea) who have their hands on a nuclear scientist capable of building the next-gen Bomb. They must of course be stopped, and the task falls to Kuryakin and Solo, with the help of the scientist’s daughter—played by Alicia Vikander, who wears her vintage outfits almost as enticingly as she wore her semi-transparent skin in Ex Machina.

Ritchie glories in his period setting, from the cars to the clothes to the Wall; he has a special fondness for ’60s European pop ballads, which he deploys ironically to underscore scenes of action and intrigue. Best of all is a ballet of men and machinery that could play as a standalone short film: while Kuryakin handles a battalion of baddies, Solo savors a forgotten lunch before swinging, with great deliberation, into action. Composer Daniel Pemberton preserves the vintage feel, with cues that put only the slightest new sheen on the jazzy sound of the original series.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the craft cocktail of summer movies: made for taste, not for impact. Made for a relatively efficient $75 million—that’s about a quarter of the going rate for a damn-the-bollocks blockbuster like Age of Ultron—it may just find the adult, CGI-weary audience it needs to justify a sequel. The original series inspired a Girl from U.N.C.L.E. spinoff, and giving more screen time to the insouciant Vikander could only improve what’s already a refreshing respite from the summer’s same-y superheroes.

Jay Gabler