Man from U.N.C.L.E. a poor relation of TV original

Damon Smith
14 August, 2015 01:00

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (12A, 116 mins) Action/Romance/Comedy. Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Sylvester Groth, Luca Calvani, Christian Berkel, Hugh Grant. Director: Guy Ritchie


MORE than 50 years after the achingly cool TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. exploited Cold War paranoia for rollicking entertainment, director Guy Ritchie continues to explore fractious male dynamics in this globe-trotting spy caper.

The unlikely pairing of suave American agent Napoleon Solo and tightly coiled Ukrainian rival Illya Kuryakin during the Cold War remains unchanged in Ritchie's script, co-written by Lionel Wigram.

While the original pairing of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum lent swagger and smouldering sex appeal to the politically divided operatives, Ritchie's good-looking men from U.N.C.L.E. – Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill – radiate impeccably tailored style over substance and sizzle.

James Bond could arch an eyebrow and exude more charisma than either leading man manages here as they attempt to wrench a nuclear warhead from the clutches of a criminal network. The film is having a laugh to suggest that these strapping and chiselled agents, both over six feet tall, could conduct covert surveillance without drawing attention.

Ritchie evidently agrees and stokes homoerotic embers with a thinly veiled declaration of sexual preference that will prick up the ears of gay audiences as the men attempt to simultaneously pick two locks on a door and evade capture.

These throwaway moments, including an appearance by Pussy Galore's helicopter from Goldfinger, are symbolic of a film that has the right ingredients but no clear sense how to blend everything smoothly.

Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) is the beautiful mastermind of a criminal organisation, which hopes to destabilise global peace using a warhead armed by nuclear scientist Udo Teller (Christian Berkel).

CIA handler Sanders (Jared Harris) instructs his debonair agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) to join forces with KGB counterpart Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) to thwart Victoria's nefarious plan.

The two men bicker and brood, give each other pet names ("Red Peril" and "Cowboy"), and dangle Udo's car mechanic daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander) as bait to flush the scientist out of hiding. En route, the agents clash with Gaby's sadistic uncle (Sylvester Groth) and forge an alliance with an unflappable British agent, Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant).

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. lovingly evokes the textures, polish and poise of an era that rebelled against post-war drabness, with fine contributions from production designer Oliver Scholl and costume designer Joanna Johnston. The soundtrack jives to jazzy beats, matched by Ritchie's measured direction, which thankfully avoids some of his usual showboating.

If looks were everything, the film would twist and shout in snazzy kaleidoscopic split screens. However, characters are poorly developed and on-screen chemistry between the leading men and a shamefully underused Vikander is tepid.

"For a special agent, you're not having a very special day," Waverly quips to Kuryakin after one chase sequence. On this handsomely crafted yet bland evidence, nor is Ritchie.

14 August, 2015 01:00 Arts

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