Guy Richie’s big screen adaptation of the 60s spy show has been in development for over 20 years, with everyone from George Clooney to Quentin Tarantino linked with the project. It hasn’t been worth the wait.
The story takes place at the height of the Cold War, focusing on a secret intelligence agency U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Suave American agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) reluctantly teams up with ruthless Russian operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), to take down a secret criminal organisation with access to an atom bomb.
Whereas the small screen U.N.C.L.E. subverted 007 and similar heroes, this version seeks to mimic them. He borrows suits from Bond and pyrotechnics from Mission Impossible, but never gets close to the charm or fun of either. Explosions and sharp tailoring alone are not enough. Richie concentrates so hard on a nailing a suave, sixties aesthetic that he forgets that other essential spy movie ingredient: tension. The story is so pedestrian, so lacking in unexpected swerves that you may as well be watching a live-action menswear catalogue with added grenades.
That said, edgy action is the British director’s stock in trade, and some of the set pieces are impressive (Solo and Kuryakin’s Berlin Wall encounter stands out). Cavill also fits the mould of superspy, with his manly bone-structure and imposing frame. But square though his jaw undoubtedly is, not a single humorous syllable emanates from it. Hammer is a better actor, but he’s wasted on the dead-eyed Kuryakin (the less said about his Russian accent the better).
It’s in the supporting cast that we find the cheeky charm that should have been the film’s selling point. Hugh Grant seems to be having a great time in a smaller role as a sarcastic MI5 contact, while Alicia Vikander is infinitely more interesting than her male counterparts as Gaby, daughter of a missing scientist.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. presents an odd proposition. On the surface it’s a confident, fast paced action comedy. But after a while it becomes painfully apparent that there simply isn’t the substance to maintain your interest.