Long ago, decades before most of you were born, there was a hit TV series named The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Co-conceived by Ian Fleming (James Bond's daddy), it was a stylish action-thriller about two spies fighting evil and being cool. Robert Vaughn played Napoleon Solo, dashing American secret agent, and he was popular, but the bulk of the attention went to David McCallum as his partner, soulful Russian agent Illya Kuryakin. He was quieter, more exotic, and he had a groovy Beatles haircut.
Fifty-one years after its premiere, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is back as a feature film, directed by Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and starring Henry Cavill, the current Superman, as Solo and Armie Hammer, the Lone Ranger, as Kuryakin. The movie is fun, if you're content to view it as an exercise in style and fashion. That's the way I watched it, though it wasn't my plan.
Truth is, I missed some plot points early on because I couldn't stop thinking about Henry Cavill's voice. Where had I heard that rolling, glib style of speech before? As key information about the story passed by, I searched my memory and finally came up with three possible sources: First, Cavill sounds like Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak on episodes when he seems particularly determined to make sure we understand that he thinks the show is beneath him. Second, he sounds like Matt Keeslar, star of the delightful 2008 spy spoof TV series, The Middleman. And finally, Cavill sounds a bit like Keith Morrison, the Dateline NBC journalist that narrates true crime stories like the host of a late-night horror show.
So there you go.
For what it's worth, here's the actual plot (I looked it up): In 1963, near Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie, rival secret agents Solo and Kuryakin try to capture German auto mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander from Ex Machina), whose father, Udo Teller, is a renegade Nazi rocket expert. Eventually, the rivals are instructed by their respective organizations to work together with Gaby to grab Udo before he delivers a nuclear warhead to some very evil people.
The story serves as an excuse to throw Solo and Kuryakin at each other and watch the sparks. Cavill's Solo is suave, or as suave as one can be with that voice. Kuryakin is a sullen loner prone to tantrums. Despite his size (Hammer is 6'5") and absurd strength, he comes off more like an emotionally bruised boy than a behemoth. And he doesn't have a Beatles haircut, which is sad.
Solo and Kuryakin lob insults back and forth, and the homoerotic subtext so common to buddy movies is less than subtle at times (a "top – bottom" bit of business concerning locks is hard to miss). Cavill and Hammer are interesting, even though their characters feel more like constructs than people. Alicia Vikander gets lots of screen time, but the focus remains on the men.
Guy Ritchie has made a sturdy movie with interesting camerawork, an effective score and entertaining, if insular, characters. Nothing earth-shaking is going on here, but it's a nice way to spend a couple of hours. I hope there's a sequel – I'm interested in where they might take the characters next. By the way, U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. Kind of a stretch, don't you think?
Opening: Thursday, wide-release