Action: Two cold war spy enemies are teamed together to stop a criminal organization from creating an atomic bomb.
It's 1963 and Napoleon Solo (HENRY CAVILL) is a former art thief turned American spy who's in East Berlin hoping to find and extract young auto mechanic Gaby Teller (ALICIA VIKANDER) from the communist state. Her father, Udo (CHRISTIAN BERKEL), was reportedly Hitler's favorite rocket scientist and while he had since been working for the Americans, he's recently disappeared. Accordingly, Napoleon is tasked with getting Gaby so they can find him. But the Russians also want her for the same reason, and thus have sent their own spy, the brutish Illya Kuryakin (ARMIE HAMMER), to do the deed, but after a car chase and elaborate escape, Napoleon is the one who succeeds.
Thus, he's surprised when his handler, Saunders (JARED HARRIS), informs him that he's now being teamed with Illya. Their task -- where Illya is to pose as Gaby's architect fiancé -- is to use Gaby's uncle Rudi (SYLVESTER GROTH) to get into the proximity of Alexander (LUCA CALVANI) and Victoria Vinciguerra (ELIZABETH DEBICKI). While he races cars, she runs a criminal organization that wants to build an atomic bomb, something that worries British spy agency rep, Waverly (HUGH GRANT), who's also on the scene. With different styles of doing their line of work and not really sure they can trust each other, Napoleon and Illya form an unlikely partnership as they try to get the job done.
OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Have you ever known a woman or man who has the so-called "it factor?" They're the type who is attractive but not classically or traditionally beautiful or handsome, and often don't photograph as well as they appear in person. But there's just something about them that seems magnetic and you simply can't pry away your eyes. Interestingly enough, it's usually far more innate than learned or practiced, and can evaporate over time. Everyone wants it, but few manage to possess it.
That certainly applies to specific types of movies as well, mainly those that want to look, sound and be perceived as stylish and cool. But like people who try to create it rather than be born with it, it's easy to spot the poseurs. And that's somewhat the case with "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."
It's based on the popular TV show of the same name that aired from 1964 to 1968 starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as rival spies working for the titular organization (the "United Network Command for Law and Enforcement"). It obviously capitalized on the James Bond films that first hit the market two years earlier, and it was reported that Ian Fleming, author of the original Bond novels, even helped contribute ideas for the show.
Of course, over the years, the 007 films have gone from cool and stylish to campy and fun to deadly serious of recent, so a spy flick going back to a combination of those two earlier attributes would seem welcomed, even if the vast majority of today's moviegoers likely have no working knowledge of the old TV show (I barely remember it).
Undeterred, writer/director Guy Ritchie ("Sherlock Holmes" and its sequel, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"), who co-wrote the screenplay with Lionel Wigram, so wants this reimagining of the series to have that "it factor" that it almost comes off as too desperate. And like people who try to manufacture rather than innately possess that quality, the film ultimately doesn't succeed in that regard. But it comes mighty darn close from time to time as it unfolds over its mostly entertaining, nearly two-hour runtime.
With a quick and efficient, if superficial visual representation of the Cold War presented during the opening credits, the flick begins with a decent sequence where Henry Cavill ("Man of Steel") plays an American spy trying to get chop shop auto mechanic Alicia Vikander ("Ex Machina") over the wall from East to West Berlin.
It seems her father was Hitler's favorite rocket scientist who then came over to the American side but has since gone missing. And it's not just the Americans who have an interest in that man and thus his adult daughter, represented by Armie Hammer (""The Social Network") playing the Russian spy who's also after her.
Considering the time, setting, and their vocations, the two men are natural enemies, but they end up forced to work together by their respective handlers, all in hopes of keeping the woman's father from building an A-bomb for an Italian socialite turned uber-villain (Elizabeth Debicki). The fun, of course, not only is supposed to be generated by the men's adversarial relationship, but also their differences in demeanor. Cavil's Napoleon Solo is cut from the Bond mold, ruggedly handsome, svelte, charming, and stylish. Hammer's Illya Kuryakin has none of that and is all brutish and harshly efficient in getting the job done, coupled with some anger management issues.
There is fun to be had in all of that, but most of it falls short of greatness, which also holds true for an awkwardly budding potential romance between Hammer and Vikander's characters. As in most Ritchie flicks, the action is handled well and looks quite stylish, and it's enjoyable being immersed in the trappings of a bygone, Bond-esque espionage era.
Like those aforementioned other elements, however, all of that likewise just misses the mark, by varying degrees, of nailing that aura. It's never bad and certainly not boring, but you can't help but feel that the film, and its various aspects, is trying so hard to be retro cool but falls just inches short from attaining that. I'm not sure what, if any fixes, Ritchie and company could have used to get there, as sometimes movies, like people, simply have "it" and others don't.
If you like the thought of mixing the Sean Connery and Roger Moore versions of earlier Bonds together, and don't mind a "near miss" experience, you might just find this offering entertaining. I did enough to rate "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." a 6 out of 10.