If there’s a saying that sums up the thinking of movie executives it must be “Everything old is new again.” So far this year we’ve had reboots or sequels to “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Mad Max,” “Fantastic Four,” “Jurassic Park,” “Ted,” “Magic Mike,” “Terminator,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Entourage,” “Pitch Perfect,” “Despicable Me,” “The Woman in Black,” “Taken,” “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Cinderella,” “Divergent,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Avengers,” “Poltergeist” and “Insidious.” And that’s just through the middle of August. The rest of the year has more ranging from another visit to the animated “Hotel Transylvania” as well as a galaxy far, far away for another episode of “Star Wars.” Many of these are or were greatly anticipated while others caused either a collective groan or disinterested shrug. Probably falling into the disinterested category is the big screen interpretation of a 50 year old TV show about Cold War spies from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain that work together to keep the world safe. While I was aware of “The Man from UNCLE” TV show and may have seen an episode or two, I can’t say the idea of a movie version ever crossed my mind. It apparently crossed the minds of movie executives who approached director Guy Ritchie to bring his unique visual style to this reimagining. While it certainly has style and very pretty people playing the roles, “The Man from UNCLE” doesn’t feel at all substantial.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) was a notorious thief in Europe until his capture by a task force of elite law enforcement. His prison sentence was suspended in exchange for using his special talents to help the CIA. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a KGB agent with anger issues due in part to his treatment after his father was caught skimming funds from the Communist Party and sent to a gulag. It’s the early 1960’s and the Cold War is at its zenith. Solo is sent into East Berlin to help Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) escape to the West. Her father was a German nuclear scientist helping the Nazis in World War II try to make an atomic bomb. He has developed a way to quickly and easily enrich uranium and has recently disappeared. The CIA thinks Gaby can lead them to her father. In trying to escape, Solo and Gaby are followed by Kuryakin and a chase ensues. Solo and Gaby are able to escape. The next day, Solo’s boss Saunders (Jared Harris) reintroduces Solo and Kuryakin and, along with Illya’s KGB boss, informs the pair that they will be working together to find Gaby’s father as it is in the best interest of both sides that her father’s work not fall into the wrong hands. Gaby’s Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) works for Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debicki), the owners of a shipping company in Rome. His late father started the company and was a fascist that supported Mussolini. The company may have ties to Nazi sympathizers. Despite their utter dislike and distrust of one another, Solo and Kuryakin must work together to find Gaby’s father and keep the world safe from Nazis with nukes.
It’s hard not to like “The Man from UNCLE.” From the far flung international locales to the witty banter, the film is designed to be interesting to both the eye and ear. Director Guy Ritchie pulled a few pages from films of the past to embed the notion that this is a 1960’s film that just happens to have 21st century actors in it. The action scenes are tight with little wasted space and the story zips along almost faster than the audience can keep up. It has all the makings of a giant money maker that should launch a franchise. Then why did I feel like I’d just walked through a sprinkler when I intended to jump into the deep end of the pool? I should have been soaked head to toe in nostalgia and international intrigue but instead I feel practically bone dry.
Perhaps the fault lies in setting the story in the early 1960’s: Kennedy is president, the Soviets are perceived to be the biggest threat to freedom and the scourge of Nazism isn’t that far in the rearview mirror. While I certainly remember the old USSR and the fear that the world would fall under totalitarian rule, it isn’t something I look back on with fondness or warm feelings. “The Man from UNCLE” seems to long for the day when our enemies were much easier to identify and target. Moving the story into modern times would have been easy as the U.S. and Russia don’t get along much better now than they did back then. Preventing a terrorist group from getting their hands on a nuclear device would seem to be an easy enough translation from the 1960’s to now since that’s one of the intelligence community’s biggest fears. Drop the Nazis and put in ISIL and you have a modern story that could throw in a few digs at NSA eavesdropping on all our calls and emails. It could have felt more relevant while also being a globetrotting romp.
Maybe it is due to the heroes having only a small amount of trouble in dealing with the bad guys. In the latest “Mission: Impossible” movie, Ethan Hunt gets put through the ringer a couple of times. He actually seems to be in some peril. Neither Napoleon Solo nor Illya Kuryakin is in any real trouble during the course of the story. They do get in a few tight spots but get out practically unscathed. When the heroes of a story appear to be able to cruise through any danger it makes the whole thing seem unimportant.
Despite the setting and lightness of tone, “The Man from UNCLE” still manages to be entertaining. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer make a winning team of likable secret agents that have a begrudging respect for each other. Cavill’s Solo is the more James Bond-like with a command of several languages, a love of fine wines and a winning way with the ladies. A nice counterpart to that is Hammer’s Kuyrakin. The stereotypical ice-cold Soviet agent that has a warm spot buried deep in the Siberia of his soul, Kuryakin has knowledge of fashion as well as a number of ways he can kill someone with his bare hands. Both agents possess skills complimentary to the other. Throwing Alicia Vikander into the mix as the master mechanic Gaby Teller and you have a team that can handle just about any situation that is thrown their way.
Director Guy Ritchie keeps the action moving from scene to scene with very little wasted time. Ritchie’s style is quite recognizable with the occasional odd camera angle, the uniqueness of the soundtrack and the use of quick flashbacks that show what happened in scenes just a few minutes earlier. Ritchie keeps the eye moving along with the story and that helps to keep the momentum at a fast pace.
“The Man from UNCLE” is rated PG-13 for action/violence, some suggestive content and partial nudity. There are several fist fights with one resulting in the death of a character from a stab wound. There is a scene of torture using an electric chair. Several nameless henchmen are shot. One character is shot at point blank range. There is very little blood shown. There are some sexually suggestive sounds heard over a radio. We see a topless woman in silhouette and get a brief glance of side breast. Foul language is widely scattered and mild.
“The Man from UNCLE” is a stylish and witty spy romp that puts to full use the fashion and look of the 1960’s. It is about as substantial as cotton candy and may leave the viewer with a feeling of “that was nice” but that’s about all. Apparently audiences want more than “nice” since it was left in the dust by “Straight Outta Compton” and came in third at the box office behind “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” which is in its third week. I enjoyed the film and think it is worth seeing but I can’t say it’s great.