'ze Germans on a speedboat, but during the chaos, he gets thrown overboard. Any reasonable movie would keep the focus on Kuryakin, hurtling alongside him as he evades his pursuers through heroism and ingenuity. Instead, Ritchie stays with Solo as he calmly finds his way to a pickup truck, where he happily discovers a Little Red Riding Hood-like basket of goodies. As Solo uncorks a bottle of wine and carefully tucks in a bib, the boat chase featuring Kuryakin rages on in the background, orange flames silently erupting into the black night sky. Yet only after savoring a bite of his stolen sandwich, then emitting a weary sigh of annoyance, does Solo come to his partner's aid.
This is a very funny scene, but it's also illustrative of Ritchie's
commitment to lightness as a mode of storytelling. To say he favors
style over substance almost gives him too much credit. What really
matters to him is buoyancy, which is why The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
floats along in a state of perpetual ease and winking insouciance.
Evoking a James Bond picture from the Roger Moore era (there is even a
spectacularly cheesy double entendre), it is difficult to imagine a spy
film less interested in generating danger or suspense. It's pointless,
but at the same time, it persuasively suggests that having a point is
The plot, not that it remotely matters: It is 1963, the heat of the Cold
War, and Solo and Kuryakin must work together to prevent a group of
extremists from obtaining a nuclear warhead. (The great Jared Harris
plays Solo's gruff American boss, presumably just so he can try out a
Yankee accent.) Their point of entry is Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a
German mechanic whose father worked unwillingly as a scientist for the
Nazis during World War II. Solo and Kuryakin intend to use Gaby's
familial connections to infiltrate the terrorist faction before the
baddies get their hands on enriched uranium and things go boom.
This setup is perfunctory, but its execution reveals The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
as a classic oil-and-water, buddy-cop comedy. (Whether this resembles
the original TV show, I can't say; prior to watching this movie, my sole
knowledge of the source material involved Sally Draper masturbating to it.)
Solo, a cross between Bond and Ryan Seacrest, is the cavalier sort who
seems just as comfortable shopping for clothes as firing pistols.
Kuryakin, in contrast, is an ostensible brute, the type of inhumanly
strong creature who could be a Bond villain, if he weren't playing for
the good guys. Much of the movie's pleasure derives from these two
beautiful men fighting, collaborating, bickering, and possibly flirting.
It's a romance without the sex, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is like whipped cream without the sundae.
Which is not entirely a bad thing—whipped cream, after all, can be
awfully tasty. Besides, the absence of story here is hardly
unprecedented for a contemporary would-be franchise-starter, in which
the plot tends to serve as the mere skeleton on which the popcorn
elements are layered. What's strange about The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
is that the action sequences themselves also feel irrelevant. Sure,
there's a lengthy, depressingly dull three-way vehicle chase near the
end of the film involving a motorcycle, a Humvee, and a dune buggy, but
for the most part, this movie is static rather than kinetic. (The
exception is the film's invigorating opening set piece, a cunningly
choreographed car chase that's more notable for its guile than its
speed.) This does not mean that it is entirely lethargic—more that it is
in no hurry to move its characters anywhere in particular. Ritchie is
less interested in whirring spycraft than he is in interpersonal
dynamics, primarily the game of cocky one-upmanship perpetually being
played between Napoleon and Kuryakin.
The Americans. But if you're interested in light, amiable entertainment, pull up a well-appointed chair.
Not that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is necessarily expertly crafted.
Ritchie is, without doubt, a relentless stylist, but that doesn't make
him a great one. His pet editing trick, which he also employed in Sherlock Holmes
(and its inferior sequel, also featuring Harris), involves rushing
through a series of events, then quickly hopscotching back through time
to illustrate how the culminating event (an explosion, a theft) came to
fruition. It's a clever ploy, but it suffers from diminishing returns,
as does his self-congratulatory gambit of shunting plot points to the
background of the frame. (The boat chase-cum picnic is terrific, but
Solo and Kuryakin conversing quietly in the foreground while a man
helplessly burns to death behind them is less amusing.) He is also
weirdly enamored with the use of split-screen without really
capitalizing on the technology, instead just senselessly fracturing the
image into a number of choose-your-adventure panels.
But even if Ritchie is not entirely in control of his artistic impulses,
he still wields them in the proper spirit, namely, supreme
indifference. In this, he receives a valuable assist from Cavill, a Brit
who seems much more at ease playing a superagent than Superman, gliding
through the movie with a perpetual smirk. His comfort portraying Solo
makes one sympathize with Hammer, who gracefully mines the physical
comedy from Kuryakin's bestial build but is clearly trying very hard in
the process. Both men, however, are really supporting actors in service
of Vikander, the effortlessly charming Swede who, continuing her 2015
breakout that began with the Australian crime flick Son of a Gun and continued with the sensational Ex Machina,
is the only member of the cast who generates actual pathos. In a movie
concerned entirely with surface pleasures, she sneaks under your skin.
clingy black-and-white yin-yang dress?
(All of Joanna Johnston's costumes are excellent, which is fitting,
given that Solo and Kuryakin are both stingily obsessed with fashion; in
one sly exchange, Solo admonishes Kuryakin for wearing a bow tie that
clashes with his suit, followed by a smash cut to Kuryakin, in a
different location, now wearing a necktie.) That's the level of
superficial panache that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. earnestly
embraces—everything else just feels incidental. At one point, Kuryakin
delivers a perfectly placed punch to the neck of an oblivious foe, one
that renders him unconscious but nevertheless leaves him perfectly
upright and paralyzed. It gets a belly laugh, but it's also a metaphor
for Ritchie's filmmaking philosophy. Watching this movie, you will feel
the force of his style, and you will admire his devotion to detachment.
Just don't expect to be moved.