Film Review: ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’

'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' Review: Guy
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

An unusually restrained Guy Ritchie serves up solid entertainment with a classy touch, but bland leads and no-sizzle chemistry make this slick ’60s TV adaptation forgettable.

Whatever tough-guy notion of 1960s masculinity Robert Vaughn and David McCallum once embodied as reluctantly paired Cold War rivals has clearly gone the way of the Berlin Wall in the otherwise retro-flavored “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a PG-13-rated loose-nukes caper whose target audience is too young to remember the classic spy show that inspired it — much less the once-frosty deadlock between American capitalism and Soviet communism that pits its distractingly handsome leading men against one another. Starring Henry Cavill as American art thief Napoleon Solo and Armie Hammer as KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, Guy Ritchie’s latest feels more suave and restrained than his typically hyperkinetic fare, trading rough-and-tumble attitude for pretty-boy posturing. And though the pic is solidly made, its elegant vintage flavor simply doesn’t feel modern enough to cut through the tough summer competition. Those seeking stylish spies will surely wait for “Spectre” or that promised “Kingsman” sequel instead.

Apart from a handful of cinematic tricks so seamlessly integrated most viewers won’t even notice them, the only truly noteworthy innovation in Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” update (co-written with “Sherlock Holmes” collaborator Lionel Wigram) is the barely hidden homoerotic subtext between its two model-gorgeous stars. While these CIA and KGB poster boys never go so far as to lock lips onscreen (with one another or any of the plentiful female distractions thrown in their way), the duo spend most of the movie bickering back and forth like an old married couple, complete with playful nicknames for one another: “Cowboy” and “Red Peril.” At one point, confronted with a door with two locks in need of picking, they set aside their differences and swiftly identify their positions: “I take top,” Solo volunteers, forcing Illya to bend down and assume the bottom.

Far subtler than any of the egregious come-ons thrown around by Ian Fleming’s other spy (James Bond and Napoleon Solo both sprang from the 007 scribe’s imagination), such coded innuendo will likely escape the majority of audiences. For them, this less manly “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” unspools like a perfectly straight — and straightforward — homage to such late-’60s action movies as “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “The Italian Job,” complete with such stylistic flourishes as split-screen action sequences, a classy jazz score (featuring old-school instruments that composer Daniel Pemberton actually recorded at Abbey Road Studios) and an entire wardrobe of flashback-inducing mod fashions.

Borrowing little more than character names and Jerry Goldsmith’s sleek musical theme from the original series, which ran from 1964-68 on NBC, Ritchie’s film is a surprising exception among so many recent classic-TV adaptations in that it doesn’t ironically parody its own source material (the way “Get Smart” and “21 Jump Street” did). Instead, the movie introduces Solo and Illya as hyper-competent professionals with equally matched skill sets but radically different temperaments.

Debonair and reckless as Solo, “Man of Steel” star Cavill comes across more British than American in his tailored-suit appearance and nimble Cary Grant demeanor — at least until Hugh Grant surfaces late in the film as his future boss, Waverly. By contrast, Hammer (“The Lone Ranger”) is all business as Illya, stone-faced and serious, his jaw set squarely and hair neatly combed, a nasty scar notched alongside his piercing eyes. In a high-octane yet reasonably paced opening sequence, the two spies compete to extract an asset named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) from East Germany, and while she proves nimble behind the wheel, she’s clearly a third wheel in this boys’ show.

One senses that Ritchie has done his best to give Gaby as much to do as her two male co-stars: She’s easily her colleagues’ superior in all things mechanical, and in the final freeze-frame, she stands alongside them as an equal partner. And yet, as in nearly every other film in the helmer’s oeuvre (save perhaps his unfortunate “Swept Away” remake), this is a testosterone party where cocky men with oversized egos wrestle to achieve a common goal — in this case, using Gaby to locate her rocket-scientist father, who is on the brink of delivering a nuclear warhead into the hands of a glamorous Italian dame (diamond-cool Elizabeth Debicki, looking like a lost Hilton sister) and a torture-savvy ex-Nazi (Sylvester Groth, loving every twisted minute).

Cavill and Hammer have each toplined major tentpoles before, so it’s something of a mystery why neither makes much of an impression here, but there’s a curious vacuum at the center of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” that almost certainly owes to its casting. The actors behave more like mannequins than men, modeling bespoke suits and dapper hats as they move in what feels like slow motion compared with past Ritchie pics. (Given her it-girl status and her boosted profile following the breakout hit “Ex Machina,” Vikander also disappoints.) As ever, the “Sherlock Holmes” helmer appears to be preoccupied with style, but his latest venture lacks the rowdy chemistry that has distinguished his signature approach since “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.”

That may come as a relief to those who find Ritchie’s work overly complicated, and indeed, it feels (for the first time) as if he’s trying to make a film for the ages, as opposed to one for the attention-deficit appetites of today’s easily bored audiences. Ritchie and his team seem thrilled to be channeling the decade in question, relaxing into the cool rhythms of 1960s cinema, both studio and arthouse: The tone owes as much to Norman Jewison as Michelangelo Antonioni (while underscoring what meager substitutes its dapper leads make for man’s-man stars like Robert Vaughn and David McCallum).

Though the effort will likely be lost on popcorn crowds, Ritchie and top-tier cinematographer John Mathieson deliver an all-around elegant package, taking care to compose each shot while forgoing the rough-and-tumble incoherence of most contempo action. Even during rapidly edited chase sequences, there’s a clear visual logic at work, enhanced by trick shots and vfx splices that allow the camera to dynamically ricochet between physically impossible points of view. From the spartan Iron Curtain opening sequence to the Rococo explosion of production design that awaits in the Italian-set latter half, the film is as fetishistically detail-oriented as any Wes Anderson movie, and yet Ritchie engineers the experience to privilege the characters and action over their lavishly appointed environments.

Such care is effectively squandered on such material, which proves far stronger in individual moments — such as an amusing speedboat chase that unfolds while Solo enjoys a Chianti on the sidelines — than in its tired nuclear-warhead plot. While the script acknowledges the rivalry between East and West, it fails to capitalize on the tension that would have existed between Solo and Illya, who are quick to trade cultural putdowns but don’t really seem to be working for opposing sides. They duke it out in the first reel, destroying a public restroom in the process, but never again spar. This despite orders from both of their superiors to eliminate one another if necessary, passing up an incredible opportunity later in the film for a “From Russia With Love”-like fight scene (that film’s epic train tussle comes to mind) — or a more overt display of whatever physical urge these two metrosexual men from U.N.C.L.E. might be repressing.

Film Review: 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. screening room, Paris, Aug. 4, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release and presentation, in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment of a Ritchie/Wigram, Davis Entertainment production. Produced by John Davis, Lionel Wigram, Guy Ritchie, Steve Clark-Hill. Executive prodcuers, David Dobkin, Steven Mnuchin. Co-producers, Max Keene, Mark Mostyn.

Crew

Directed by Guy Ritchie. Screenplay, Ritchie, Lionel Wigram; story, Jeff Kleeman, David Campbell Wilson, Ritchie, Wigram, based on the television series. Camera (color, widescreen), John Mathieson; editor, James Herbert; music, Daniel Pemberton; production designer, Oliver Scholl; supervising art director, James Hambidge; art directors, David Allday, Guy Bradley, Toby Britton, Kate Grimble, Remo Tozzi, Matilda Wainwright; set decorator, Francesco Alberico; costume designer, Joanna Johnston; sound (Dolby Atmos), Gareth John; sound designer, Jimmy Boyle; supervising sound editor, Dominic Gibbs; re-recording mixer, Chris Burdon, Gilbert Lake; visual effects supervisor, Richard Bain; visual effects producer, Sarah Tulloch; visual effect,s Cinesite, Rise, Bluebolt; special effects supervisor, Dominic Tuohy; special effects coordinator, Carmila Gittens; stunt coordinators, Jimmy O’Dee, Paul Jennings; fight coordinator, Mike Lambert; associate producer, Peter Eskelsen; assistant director, Mark Mostyn; second unit director, Paul Jennings; second unit camera, Harvey Harrison; casting, Reg Poerscout-Edgerton.

With

Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris. (English, German, Russian, Italian dialogue)

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  1. spiralx says:

    Just watched it on DVD. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Not classic Man from UNCLE, no, much more James Bond. But so beautifully framed and shot, music, glamorous settings & clothes, wonderful car chases. I can understand the stiff upper lips all round, they’re all getting to know and trust each other. Let’s hope Armie Hammer’s sequel request comes to pass. I think the next outing could be spectacular.

  2. Richard says:

    Will there be q second Man from UNCLE?

  3. Lore says:

    Homoerotic subtext? Maybe the reviewer is reading into it what he wants cause I didnt see it, anywho…its n enjoyable enough movie but where it fell flat was chemistry. Thats what made the series and thats whats missing. And now I’ll never find out what that weird super Illya subplot was all about….

  4. jd says:

    What is the fascination with subtitles in hollywood? This is just one more reason I will never pay good money to see a movie in a theater. Might as well stay home and read a book.

    • spiralx says:

      Ah, but did you notice? They were done in the style of the original series. And the scene in the car where we can’t hear what they’re saying (which is not in English anyway) so the subtitles fill a double gap, is just pure fun.

  5. mypabp.com says:

    This new Man from U.N.C.L.E. would be an instant masterpiece if it were consistently as good as its best parts, but even as a hit-and-miss affair, it’s a bracing bit of late-summer fun for anyone who has given up the notion of a major studio offering anything truly revelatory until at least October.

  6. Jess says:

    This movie was AWESOME really don’t know why people could talk crap about it!! I liked how it didn’t go over the top!! This movie is by far my favourite movie I’ve ever watched!!! I can’t stop watching it!! Give it a try you will like it. It’s got a good mixture of intertainment!! 10/10 please make U.N.C.L.E #2!!!!!

  7. Lilly says:

    This review totally sucks!!! I really enjoyed the movie and hope there will be squeals. I was really entertained and its hard for me to be entertained with todays predictable movies. I loved it Guy!!! Fuck you Peter Debruge!!!

  8. Jean Duchene says:

    Peter Debruge should get his head out of his crotch, and pretend he’s an ordinary adult occasional movie goer who does “get it”- namely what Guy Ritchie is delivering, and not waste precious text in precotious speculation about ‘hidden meanings’ all over the place. It’s a Cold War playful set piece of less than bombastic exuberance and a fantasy spy story, with attrative entrances and exits from the distaff side. So, it’s not triple A-1 in his opinion. We thought it thoroughly enjoyable if taken at face value. Point finale !

  9. M Gilez says:

    I saw it and took it for what it was. An enchanting, lighthearted spoof of the 60’s with a dash of 007. Both Cavill and Hammer are easy on the eyes and I loved the costumes…I felt like Twiggy might walk by at any moment or Mary Quandt was the make-up artist. Lighten up people. Geez. So tired of mission Impossible or Bourne…I’ll take this over those any day.

  10. Les says:

    I can’t tell if your being critical of the movie or comparing it to others of the summer. I’ ll go with the latter. If that’s true you didn’t do your job.

  11. Rick says:

    ok…this could be the worst movie ever!!!! Wanted to leave after a few minutes…stayed for some reason…hoping for something…yes the end of a poorly written, acted, directed, and edited movie.

  12. JJ says:

    Okay wow, this reviewer seems terrified of any prospect of homosexuality or unfamiliar masculinity? Like take it down a notch. The film was brilliantly made, Ritchie is a master at his craft, and I found the 2 leads to be engaging and well-fitted for their roles. So what if there was a layer of homoerotic subtext?! That makes things more hilarious and frankly, more interesting. Why are dudes so scared of being thought gay. Like what is up with y’all.

  13. C.A.B. says:

    Unfortunately, the Warner Bros name has pretty much come to mean it’s a bad film.

  14. Harriet says:

    This was the worst Man From Uncle I have ever seen. The TV show was much better. What a waste of 2 great looking actors. And Hugh Grant.

  15. Sam America says:

    HOLLYWEIRD SUCKS! THEY HAVE SUCKED FOR A LONG TIME EXCEPT FOR THE ONE IN
    A THOUSAND EXCEPTION SOMEONE MAKES A DECENT PICTURE IN THE LAST 10 YEARS!
    TO LOOK BACK ON 2000 AND 90S AND EVEN 80’S MOST OF THOSE PICTURES ARE NOW
    LOOKING MUCH BETTER THAN THE CRAP HOLLYWEIRD MAKES NOW! MAN FROM UNCLE
    WAS ONE OF THOSE CLASSIC SHOWS THAT CAN’T BE REMADE! PERIOD! GIVE UP YOU
    NO TALENT LEFT WING LIBERAL AHOLES FROM HOLLYWEIRD! BRING IN SOME NEW TALENT!

  16. byerstexas says:

    I could scarcely keep my eyes open, thought about leaving, but with 100 degree heat making life miserable outside, I opted to stay the course. No reason to do this if you’re in a more hospitable climate.

    The script is dull and humorless, no suspense included, and never any real sense of an impending nuclear threat, that might moved audiences a little closer to the edges of seats. The lead actors appear uncomfortable throughout. Neither Cavill nor Hammer seem to have any humor at all with which to infuse their roles, though as per the posters make stylish very male models. Better seen that heard. There is absolutely no chemistry whatever between them, hence the wit of the original series is totally lacking in the effort.

    With the exception of Hugh Grant, who delivers the only real performance of the film. His turn as Waverly, all too brief, is wry, energized, and surprisingly evocative of a younger, hipper version of Leo G. Carroll’s Mr. Waverly.

    The visual nods to the mods are many and varied but go only so far. I found myself watching the “It Takes a Thief” era Chris Craft pulling away from the dock, the quick glimpse of the stand up, rotary dial Ericofon and Elizabeth Debecki in full 60’s high fashion mode and thinking “Almost cool. But not quite.”

    For my money Ritchie is much more effective with smaller films like “Snatch.” He writes them better and directs them better. He seems to have gone from over the top with the Sherlock Holmes efforts to bouncing along the bottom with U.N.C.L.E.

    In the end, your better off visiting your U.N.C.L.E in TV Land.

  17. Film Geek says:

    Given that the acronym of the enemy from the original tv show sounds like a vaginal infection – it appears the studio played it safe and pretended T.H.R.U.S.H. didn’t exist. Taking this into account, how about a new name for the enemy. I dunno, perhaps…..

    S.E.M.E.N.?

    That stands for:

    Society of evil men

    :P

  18. bob says:

    Guy Ritchie has yet to make a film that doesn’t involve a manifestation of gay panic.

  19. Every film critic (including Ebert) is intrinsically bias. We all are. The 60s U.N.C.L.E. was modeled on Sean Connery’s James Bond and not Ian Fleming’s…not simply the era. And the Russin not originally intended as recurring character. Any suggestion of homo-erotica is attributed to Robert Vaughan’s softness of character and not necessarily Solo’s as written.

    As for the Cold War…a slick Hollywood production will never convey that time in history. And for Richie as a director, it’s always “who you know.

    This movie is based on the title of the TV show, and an international box office hoping for a sequel (hence the freeze-frame at the end of the show).

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if a movie is good or bad but is it “watchable”. Goes back to that bias thing.

  20. Raven West says:

    I’ve yet to see the movie, but the trailers look very disappointing.

    METV network is re-running the series and it is so great to remember what GOOD, no GREAT TV was before all the graphic violence, sex, over the top action and special effects overtook great writing and story telling.

    In my novel “Undercover Reunion” the main characters are 2 girlfriends who were HUGE UNCLE fans as kids and when they attend their 30tth HS reunion, discover that UNCLE is real and are recruited to join. It’s totally respectful of the original series. Kindle e-book .99 on Amazon.

  21. L. A. Julian says:

    Oh, the homoerotic tension is definitely NOT an innovation! The leads of the U.N.C.L.E. TV show have been as frequently a slash pairing as Kirk and Spock. The only thing Ritchie has brought to the table is making Ilya the brawn instead of the brains of the operation.

  22. My goodness how I loved the Man from U N C L E — hope the movie comes to India — waiting !!!!

  23. Mike says:

    “Cavill and Hammer have each toplined major tentpoles before, so it’s something of a mystery why neither makes much of an impression here…” Uh, did this reviewer happen to see the major tentpoles that they toplined? Man of Steel and Lone Ranger? They were terrible, and neither actor could carry them. So, why is it a mystery that putting these vacant lunk-heads would just double the banality? It’s simple math. Hammer especially is just a blank slate. And why have the yank play the Russian and the Brit play the yank. Ugh.

  24. Alley says:

    How do Cavill and Hammer keep getting work as actors? Fashion models maybe. Store mannequins certainly. But actors?

  25. Mantle Head says:

    Sounds painfully painful and how come Ritchie gets to keep making crappy films..?

  26. Bill B. says:

    Other than a lack of original ideas, I am clueless why anyone would think this would be of interest.

  27. The great Roger Ebert once said, “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.”

    I have to say I disagree with your review today Mr. Debruge.

    You mentioned that apart from the handful of cinematic tricks most viewers would not notice we would however notice the not so subtle “Homo-erotic undertones”… Gotta say before you mentioned it the thought had not crossed my mind…

    • Rex says:

      Just because YOU don’t see Ebert in any discussions of film criticism, doesn’t mean he isn’t STILL an important part of the body of film criticism out there, and the discussion of it that will be around for a long time to come. YOU just aren’t traveling in the right circles, son, and therefore you experience with “cinema” is undoubtedly quite limited. Indeed he was an excellent writer, AND a perceptive film critic. As was Kael, and he is as much discussed as she was because he made film criticism accessible to the masses without dumbing it down (particularly in his print columns), something she never did. Both of them, like all the best critics whose work survives, did much to EDUCATE as well, something lost on a lot of the amateurs polluting blogs, IMDB and Amazon these days.

    • Mantle Head says:

      I agree that Ebert was a great writer, but he’s not missed… no one ever talks about Ebert… why is that? The only critic that gets any ink is Pauline Kael… critics are OVER!!! Thank God…

  28. filmsharks says:

    Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill are too vanilla for the lead roles. After seeing ‘Ex Machina,’ I do find Alicia Vickander a charismatic talent onscreen . Unfortunately in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E., she’s merely there for eye candy.

  29. Craig Gustafson says:

    “…Robert Vaughn and David McCallum once embodied as reluctantly paired Cold War rivals…”
    What show were you watching? That was never the case in the original series. They were partners. UNCLE was an international organization, not an American one.

  30. Mike says:

    Whatever the reviewers say about this movie I’m confident it will be better than the original TV show. TCM recently aired a movie from the series and I’ve got to say it does not hold up, if it ever did. Save for a few, TV shows from the 60’s weren’t all that great. Having said that, as a child I really enjoyed the show.

  31. Candice says:

    Wow! Who’s the idiot that greenlit this disaster? How do numbskulls continue to throw hundreds of millions of dollars away at loser storylines. I’m guessing the dope that decided to make this movie was a big fan during the mediocre TV run.

    • Mantle Head says:

      Ahhhh… Ritchie is a Brit… must have s/thing to with it… yeah, it must; but I think he blackmails the studios to get his films made. I don’t like any of his films… not even ‘lock/stock…’. No thanks… He’s strikes me a very superficial guy who’s all flash (too long in the pan,man).

  32. Lampost says:

    The persistently sanctimonious tone of this review is an offence to the cinema going public by dismissing them as dullards who will fail to spot any filmaking flourishes. Who is this review for????

    • Candice says:

      Time to go back to school. Offense…not offence

      • Mantle Head says:

        Ahhaha… wow, nice IQ… both words mean precisely the same thing. it’ s just one is the British manner of the word, the other American. Sort of like color and colour…. leftovers from the time the Brits colonized the world…

      • Daniel Boone says:

        There is no difference between the two words.
        If you are trying to bully people to conform to US spelling, then be my guest. It took me 30 seconds to determine that different countries use different spellings. I accept both spellings.

      • Lampost says:

        Nope. It’s offence. We’re not talking football tactics.

  33. like most of the comments here, I agree with them was the reviewer being confused or bored with this film. remember it’s a period piece, hoping to capture the feel of the cold war era, and not be too serious at the same time.

  34. Nath says:

    Weird, because the other reviews specifically discuss how surprised they were at how good Hammer and Cavill were (and a few were disappointed with Vikander in comparison, although it seems like they were holding her to higher standards then the men) and that the main issue was the script.

    • Daniel Boone says:

      I got the impression they measure her against her last performance. But, I did read 6 reviews – so maybe I got the wrong end of the stick.
      I particularly liked Lindsey Barr’s review (associated press). I’m sure you’ll have some clever retort about a man’s world about her too.

  35. buffalobilly says:

    only cavill’s total nudity could have saved this one….

  36. filmguy78 says:

    I agree with the comment made by Mjkbk below. What movie did DeBruge see because this review is so off. True, the movie has some issues (particularly the third act), but the least of them are the two leads. I FINALLY enjoyed a performance of Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill and, truth be told, this is the first movie were both actors finally came out of their wooden, albeit handsome, shells.

  37. Sal says:

    Not interested. Pass.

  38. Mjkbk says:

    Solo and Kuryakin were “manly”, “rough-and-tumble” “tough guys” in the TV series?

    I remember the show’s original run back in the 60s, and I’d be much more inclined to describe them as ‘debonair’ and ‘cerebral’ in their masculinity.

    The reviewer apparently was expecting more of a variation on modern actioner hyper-masculinity. When did either Vaughn or McCallum embody those attributes?

    • Daryle says:

      Definitely agree with Mjkbk and Angeleno – you really have to wonder whether the reviewer ever saw the TV series! The handsome, quiet, mysterious Ilya made David MacCallum a teen idol of the “Tiger Beat” variety back then; I certainly collected posters. And both MacCallum and Vaughn were competent agents – very different – but they had chemistry, and they were both portrayed as being intelligent.. And heaven knows, their show fueled a lot of fan fiction for years after the show aired. It may not have been GREAT television, but it did have a following that actually outlived the series. Men’s men – no. Rough and tumble – not in the main. But I have to say, it was a show for its time…not something that could really be recaptured in 2015. Some things can’t and shouldn’t be resurrected…and this is one of those things.

      • William says:

        Very good point. Vaughn played Solo stylishly, not “butch” or hyper-masculine at all — neither did McCallum. When the reviewer says this is a “less manly Man from U.N.C.L.E.” — not long after writing about the film’s alleged homoeroticism — it comes off like HE’S stuck back in the sixties. Why are they “less manly” — because they could be gay? What an antiquated attitude!

    • Angeleno says:

      I thought the same thing. I liked them in the show, thought they did a great job, but in what world would either of them ever have been considered a “man’s man” type?! The author must be confusing his memories of some other show.

      • Daniel Boone says:

        This was the only review they talked about hyper masculinity – it appears to contradict the other reviews I read. Take this review with a grain of salt. It was comprehensive, but contradicted some of the better reviews I read. I’m inclined to give the other reviewers the benefit of the doubt.

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