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.