The only thought likely to stick with you following a viewing of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” will concern the question of where and why Henry Cavill has been hiding his charm these past few years. Not only does the typically stony star reveal a new channel of charisma playing smooth-as-velvet CIA Agent Napoleon Solo, but he accepts the responsibility of keeping Guy Ritchie’s espionage venture alive. For this endeavor, we owe to Cavill about as much gratitude as the American public did to Solo for his labor toward international harmony at the summit of the Cold War: A fat lot of good it did in the grand scheme of things, but the effort was commendable.
We meet the aforementioned superspy in the heat of a typical reconnaissance mission. His assignment is to retrieve and ally with East German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), who bears familial connection to the U.S. government’s prime criminal target: a former Nazi scientist with an above average knack for building nuclear weapons. Also on the prowl for Gaby—likewise in the interest of preventing unwanted detonations—is Soviet agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), whose pursuit thereof allows for the film’s first and, by a long shot, most enjoyable action set piece.
Director Ritchie’s routinely overboard kinetic bombast plays as delightful company to this small-scale chase sequence, which launches Cavill, Teller, and Hammer through practically hand-drawn alleyways of a USSR-occupied Germany. All the while, Cavill’s silver tongue seems to insist that gravity is the last thing on this movie’s mind. With all fronts united in the name of giddiness, Ritchie manages a promising first act. But at the whim of the action movie formula, and ostensibly nothing else, priorities shift as the story carries forward. When we’re asked later on to attend to escalating stakes and a dimming tone, we’re simply left wondering what happened to all the fun.
It doesn’t exactly fade altogether. In the absence of the above caliber of action work, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” offers up a chipper comic rivalry between Cavill and Hammer, whose characters are bound into unwitting partnership by a shared aspiration to nab Gaby’s Nazi doc father. To Cavill’s wry smirk, Hammer offers a sour grin, contesting his counterpart on everything from skills in the field to fashion sense.
But even though Illya isn’t meant to be having quite as good a time as Solo is, we can’t help but wish that Hammer, a capable comic actor when he wants to be, was willing to climb to the heights of the picture’s levity. Instead of having fun with his character’s prudish severity, Hammer stays stiff as Cavill and Vikander dance around him (sometimes literally). The latter, though saddled with the least imaginative material of the bunch, keeps impressively vivid nevertheless in her double duty as the team’s ace-in-the-hole and de facto peanut gallery.
But whenever the trio stops gabbing in the film’s final hour, we’re left alone with servings of action and espionage that suddenly demand to be taken seriously. Ritchie further muddles the matter of tone with an adhesion to his directorial flamboyance, always opting bigger and louder than his absence of genuine grandeur would naturally allow. It’s not simply ineffective, but altogether confusing when we’re offered killings, betrayals, back-stories, and a spotlight of what might—in another film—play as a thematically rich sociopolitical climate, as if any of these matter. Weren’t we just watching a movie about two guys bickering over who has the cooler lock-picking doohickey?
Said petty squabbles, and the set pieces that prioritize them, are by and large the best of what “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” has to offer. But just as the weightlessness of the film’s action and adventure will grant it a flimsy stature against the backdrop of the spy genre, Cavill’s management of defensible banter might not be quite enough to justify its contributions as a comedy. And so, in the wake of Ritchie’s failed amalgam of these genres—in the wake of a single enchanting chase scene and a smattering of warm chuckles—the thought we’re really left with concerns when Cavill will star in a movie worthy of these newly unveiled charms. [C+]