Stylish, glamorous and cool is how I remember the “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” when growing up in the 60’s, with the incomparable Robert Vaughn playing the titular “Man” (Napoleon Solo, famously named by Ian Fleming no less) and with David McCallum having a rapidly increasing presence as his Russian colleague Illya Kuryakin. I must have spent much of my school playtimes crouched in a corner with a Parker pen whispering “Open Channel D” into the top! Highly entertaining and misogynistic, sidelining women as little more than elegant cloth-horses for later (hinted-at) sexual fun, the new film adaptation differs in only one respect… unfortunately, not the one you most would like it to.
Henry Cavill (“Superman”) plays Solo, forced into a spiky working relationship with his cold-war rival Kuryakin (Arnie Hammer from “The Social Network”) when a famous nuclear scientist goes missing risking nuclear bombs falling into the hands of a rogue power (which midway through the film seems – rather oddly – to be equated to the Nazis). The team recruit the help of the scientist’s daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander) to track down her missing father.
Guy Ritchie films are always a bit of a lottery: the “Sherlock Holmes” films had panache; the less said about “Swept Away” the better. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lies somewhere in the middle, which I predicted from the trailer: whereas I have raved about the trailers for “Inside Out” and the new “Star Wars”, I had the exact opposite reaction to the trailer for “Uncle”…. it was just so ‘meh’. So this was a film I entered with low expectations, and those expectations were pretty well met.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t have its moments: some amusing banter between the two male leads; an atmospheric cold-war Berlin set; some high octane scenes that bear stylish comparison to Sergio Leone Westerns; and the delectable Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”).
But against these plusses, it all seemed at its heart rather soulless. For significant periods of the film I wasn’t fully engaged and the film grew tiresome, not helped by multiple finales that fizzled out with a damp squib intro to the next in the franchise.
In terms of woman’s lib, the film doesn’t move the ball along very far. True that Vikander’s character is an East German car mechanic who knows how to wrestle a man to the ground, but once into ‘the plot’ she is given precious little to do other than dress prettily (something she does, with the help of costume designer Joanna Johnston, very nicely). One of the primary villains – Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki from “The Great Gatsby”) – is also female, but again the role seems largely toothless and revolves around her draped in 60’s fashions and pouting a lot.
Of the male stars, Cavill and Hammer (which sounds like a make of toothpaste) lack any great charisma; Hugh Grant does a good Hugh Grant impersonation; with the most fun being had by Sylvester Groth (“Inglourious Basterds”) who is creepily entertaining as the ex-Naxi torture doctor.
Whilst eschewing the norm in most reboots of reworking the classic theme, Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack is unusual and fits the retro-nature of the film well, although it can be a little too brash at times. Also retro in nature is the use of 60’s style split screens but this is much less successful, totally neutering the suspense in some of the action sequences. This is most notable in the final Bond-style raid on ‘baddie HQ’ which, combined with the deafening music track, clearly cost a lot of budget to stage but is just yawn-worthy dull in its presentation.
In my opinion worth a Sunday-afternoon watch on DVD, but not something to rush to the cinema to see.
Fad Rating: FFf.