Attacking Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. for being an exercise in style over substance is a bit like criticizing Schindler’s List for its lack of musical numbers—it’s going after a movie for missing something its makers were never interested in in the first place. And to be fair right up front, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a kind of masterpiece of period visual design. Set in Europe in the early 1960s, it exhibits meticulous care in terms of its costumes, sets and cinematography, creating a sumptuous cinematic environment more reminiscent of Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair or vintage Bond than the clunky TV show from which it takes its name and lead character. The superb craftsmanship on display only makes the film’s shortcomings more frustrating, though; it’s one of the best-looking boring movies ever made.
Like the television series on which it is based, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. follows the adventures of secret agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn in the TV show, Henry Cavill here), who in the film teams up with a KGB agent (Armie Hammer) to stop nuclear secrets from getting into the wrong hands. If that plot sounds mundane, it should and it is—the story here would barely pass muster as an hour-long episode of the original series, which wasn’t exactly Strindberg to begin with. Early on, Solo and his Soviet partner team up with a gorgeous German mechanic (Alicia Vikander of Ex Machina) whose father is the scientist behind the nuclear bomb that everyone is after. They head for Italy, where … well, where nothing much happens, really.
Ritchie and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram, with whom he collaborated on the Sherlock Holmes films, have created less a story than a series of disconnected scenes that make a lot of meager promises that the movie fails to fulfill. Early on, for example, Hammer’s character is established as an unstoppable, almost Terminator-esque figure in an amusing chase scene, but this aspect of his character—his superhuman strength—vanishes for huge chunks of the movie and only returns intermittently at a couple moments when it’s needed to push the creaky plot forward. In another scene, Cavill engages in some flirty business with a sexy hotel employee and sleeps with her—but this James Bond-ish aspect of his character more or less vanishes from the movie, again with one exception when it’s needed for the plot.
This kind of thing goes on throughout the movie, and it makes even strong scenes seem weak in retrospect. The film is desperately in need of humor, and an early scene where Cavill and Hammer argue over women’s fashion provides it—but again, this kind of banter is largely dropped afterward, and by the time it returns, the movie has been so suffocated under the weight of its mediocre action sequences that it’s impossible to care. The scenes in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. don’t build, they just pile up on top of one another in a heap that buries Cavill, Hammer and Vikander, who do their best to keep things lively but are ill served by their script. They’re called upon to constantly behave in ways that don’t really make sense, to keep secrets that don’t need keeping just so they can be revealed late in the film—at which point they don’t seem all that interesting anyway. To call this movie’s plot turns “surprising” would be truly generous.
None of this would matter if The Man From U.N.C.L.E. delivered the goods as a no-brainer action movie, but aside from a very well done opening chase scene it never gets the adrenaline going. It lacks the spectacular set pieces of a Mission: Impossible or Fast and Furious film, and what action scenes do exist are just flurries of quickly edited nonsense—this is the kind of movie that uses split screen effects not to provide alternate perspectives on the action, as in De Palma or Tarantino, but to hide the fact that nothing interesting is actually happening. The climax is a particularly lackluster affair in which we see two dune buggies and a motorcycle involved in a chase where half the time it’s unclear how close they are to each other or who’s chasing whom. The movie is at its best in isolated moments of visual poetry that aren’t meant to provide anything but goofy cinematic pleasure; a scene in which Ritchie depicts a boat chase silently and in the background while Cavill’s character sits calmly eating a sandwich in the foreground is genuinely clever and funny. The whole movie looks great too—the combination of production design, cinematography and digital effects to evoke period is seamless.
No matter how skillful the recreation of the 1960s, however, it can’t help but seem pointless, especially when so many of Ritchie’s references to other films fall flat. Shooting in Italy gives him an opportunity to pay tribute to the style of a lot of Italian movies, and not necessarily the expected ones—there’s a lot of Sergio Leone influence here, for instance, in a series of dramatic close-ups scored with Ennio Morricone-esque music. (At one point Morricone’s music from For a Few Dollars More is directly quoted.) While I appreciate Ritchie’s thinking outside the box, the borrowing from Leone doesn’t really work. Leone’s style in the Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West was effective because it was drawing on a whole history of grand American myths; when applied to the conventions of 1960s spy flicks and TV shows it doesn’t carry the same significance, and as a result the device seems strained. The problem is that Leone’s high style expressed his substance, but Ritchie’s only exists to take the place of it—and his style isn’t all that high to begin with.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Release Date: Aug. 13, 2015
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment, and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.