The latest cinematic Rube Goldberg machine from Guy Ritchie, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” sure is pretty to look at. That’s about all that this particular property rehaul has to offer in terms of screen satisfaction. Though like the real sweet stuff, there’s just nothing in the way of nutritional value in this eye candy, and too much is going to leave you with a stomachache.
Based on the 1960s TV series beloved by many men in their 70s, this “U.N.C.L.E.” tells the story of how two spies, one American and one Russian, come together in Cold War Germany to combat lingering Nazi (or “Nat-zee,” as it is often pronounced) influence in the nuclear arms race. American Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are loathe to join forces, especially after a breathtaking car chase in the streets of East Berlin, but a job’s a job.
Linking up with comely German car mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander), the two spies set off for Italy, where a wealthy family is suspected of developing nuclear warheads for nefarious purposes. (Those Nazis sure are an easy villain.) Solo and Kuryakin use Gaby’s connection to her scientist uncle to infiltrate the family, led by the statuesque Victoria (Elizabeth Debickie), and numerous chases, scrapes and escapes ensue. Kuryakin, fluent with his fists, takes on the lion’s share of physical action, while the cool Solo is all smooth talk and cat burglar tricks.
The film leans into the opportunity for all things retro-styled, and the look is impeccable, from the costumes to the settings, down to the props. Even the faces of the actors are architectural masterpieces that glimmer in the Italian sunlight: Cavill’s chiseled cheekbones, Debickie’s perfect profile, Vikander’s sassy pout, Hammer’s electric blue eyes. The mod wardrobe is to die for, and the actors remain gorgeous while being put through Ritchie’s paces. But that’s all that it is — surface pleasures without a drop of substance.
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Ritchie can shoehorn in all the newspaper montages and newsreel footage that he wants; this film is not about anything other than its own coolness. It doesn’t seem plausible for a film to not have any sort of themes at all, but “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” manages to be that empty. It’s not about contemporary tensions, or nostalgia for the culture of another time, or even about the Cold War, really. It is pure post-modern empty pastiche; retrograde fun made for a globalized 21st century, where an upper-crust Englishman plays the American spy, an American oil scion plays the Russian spy, and in actuality, it’s the Brits who are pulling all the strings (enter Hugh Grant).
The actors are charming and fit perfectly into their roles as glorified set design; Cavill even modulates his speech intonation into a groovy suggestive growl. Hammer’s effort is apparent as the brooding brute with a heart of gold, while Vikander is typically winning. This villainous role should prove a breakout role for Debickie as well. They’re all talented performers who nail the look and vibe of the period. Unfortunately it’s in service of nothing — there’s not even a wisp of substance beyond plot and pizzazz. It’s the perfect late summer film if all you want to do is turn off your brain.