In more than 15 years of covering the film beat, never have I encountered a more out-of-left-field production than Guy Ritchie’s reboot of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was based on the television series that aired from 1964 to 1968, followed almost 20 years later by the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair. And, in my estimation, the high-curiosity factor stems from Ritchie’s approach to the material.
Ritchie introduced himself and pretty much cemented his reputation with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). Both films trafficked in heady stylistic flourishes in the post-Pulp Fiction era. His twist, though, put a premium on rough visual hijinks — gritty and rude outbursts of violence that lacked the kind of polish capable of rendering the action in a cartoonish light, although there was still the sense that Ritchie was glorifying the less savory elements of living in a bad man’s world. This wasn’t a world in which language was the common currency; dues were paid with fists and bullets (or any other blunt instrument available).
This makes sense, to a certain extent, when you consider that Ritchie came to film without following the traditional film school route. In interviews early on, he was quick to bemoan the “boring and unwatchable” work of graduates. Ritchie was a man of action and passion, and the proof was a set of moving images that seemingly could barely be contained on the screen.
Of course, he suffered through a bit of a downturn at the box office — a bomb with then-wife Madonna (Swept Away) and a couple criminal-minded affairs (Revolver and RocknRolla) that lacked distinction — but he bounced back with, of all things, the studio-driven franchise reboot of Sherlock Holmes, featuring a red-hot Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role. Ritchie’s Sherlock, it goes without saying, isn’t Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (or your father’s) version of the super sleuth. He juices the frames with pure adrenaline, transforming Holmes into an underground fight clubber.
Which makes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. stand out even more. Sherlock Holmes was a known entity, a celebrated character ripe for reemergence and reinvention. But I’m not sure if contemporary audiences are all that aware of the original television series upon which U.N.C.L.E. is based (rather surprising when you account for all of the nostalgia that fuels cable and video-on-demand content). On top of that, the Cold War-era worldview that dominates the proceedings likely comes across as ancient history.
Ritchie, it seems, embraces these challenges, choosing to carefully develop and steadfastly maintain that period tone while dialing back his trademark visual flair, creating what amounts to a muted affair. For the faces of the American and Russian agents forced to work together for The Man, he gives us Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, respectively. Both are known for high-profile characters — Cavill is the new Man of Steel and Hammer was The Lone Ranger — although, truth be told, they have remained largely anonymous in those roles and, sadly, here as well.
A curious irony exists in audience perception and the material. Spies are supposed to hide among the shadows, to maneuver and lurk on the margins, but onscreen, we need for them to stand in stark relief from the background, to dance gracefully, exude charm and raw sexuality, kill without qualm. On paper (as in the original series), CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) met and exceeded expectations. He was a reckless former art thief, a daring and handsome man, while the KGB’s representative Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) was the cold professional. Due to Hammer’s casting, Kuryakin has the added benefit of imposing physicality.
And yet, as the movie unspools, it becomes painfully obvious that Cavill and Hammer are little more than mannequins in Ritchie’s clean frames. U.N.C.L.E. bears the mark of a stylistic experiment — a self-imposed challenge, maybe. Ritchie wants to scrub these images in order to defy those who believe he can only wallow in the grit and murk of violence. The screenplay here, which Ritchie worked on with Sherlock Holmes collaborator Lionel Wigram, features a jokey homoerotic air that drifts off into the ether, wasting the linguistic effort along with the talent of co-star Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), who obviously longs for something to latch onto — anything to ground this hot-air balloon.
Too bad that U.N.C.L.E. can’t even muster enough thrills for a final life-jolting pop. Instead, Ritchie and the movie strike a pose and leave us waiting and wanting. (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: D+ (tt stern-enzi)