The great spy thriller is a hard thing to master these days. Harder still, is to master the great spy franchise. With powerhouse series and characters like Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne, and James Bond, we live in an era where we can expect great filmmaking to emerge in this tough genre. All three of these aforementioned series have found a niche for themselves through a delicate balance of smart direction, spectacle, and narrative heft. If you hadn’t noticed, all three also happen to be adaptations of an already existing property. This is the inspiration behind the adaptation of the 1960s series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) is the man behind this adaptation, and while many—myself included—would consider him to be a great choice to direct an espionage thriller, his signature style ends up largely absent throughout. The result, sadly, is a film that has all of the parts lined up and in one place, but does not add them together until it is too late for us to really care.
The film’s premise is actually pretty intriguing. An American CIA agent is being forced to team up with a Russian KGB agent in order to stop a global nuclear crisis at the height of the Cold War. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) is the American Napoleon Solo while Armie Hammer (The Social Network, The Lone Ranger) portrays the Russian, Illya Kuryakin. Before their eventual team-up, they are tracking a woman currently living in East Berlin. Played by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Gaby is the estranged daughter of a former Nazi scientist who has disappeared (his expertise also happens to be in making nuclear warheads). After Napoleon Solo brings Gaby in, the team is formed and the three are tasked with tracking down her father in order to find and secure the nuclear warhead he is rumored to be constructing.
The problems with the film exist in the fundamentals of filmmaking. “Show, don’t tell” is a long standing rule in the creative arts, especially when it comes to film and literature. In The Man from U.N.C.L.E., there is an awful amount of telling.
The pacing is slow, the dialogue is rather dull, and the plot never comes around to completely satisfy. Surprisingly, that doesn’t make this an unwatchable film. There are a number of action set pieces and chase sequences to satisfy even the most diehard of action fanatics. In particular, a dune buggy chase through a swampy forest takes the prize for most entertaining; however, the opening sequence has a bid for close second in Napoleon trying to smuggle Gaby over the Berlin Wall.
Where trouble occurs the most would be in the chemistry between our three leads, but oddly, the performers are not to blame. All three of our stars appear to be having fun in their roles. Individually, they do a good job of portraying their characters. But with a lack of depth, they can never really do more than try their best. None of them have anything to really bite into to create any form of chemistry between one another. The quick-witted, back and forth dialogue that we came to appreciate in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films is nowhere to be seen; and while the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson is entirely unique, the potential for Solo and Kuryakin to have a similar dynamic is incredible, yet their interaction never becomes anything spectacular. Ultimately, it’s just okay.
Visually, this is a cool looking film. The 1960s setting is perfectly captured with the superb costuming and unmatched set design. Combine that with an outstanding original score and Ritchie’s cool and unique editing techniques, and you have the foundations of a pretty good period piece. The problem is that not enough attention was paid to the narrative, and in my opinion, the great period pieces started with a great story, not the other way around.
The film does redeem itself a little bit when we reach the third act. By then, enough of the reveals have taken place and the characters can just focus on finishing the job. From there the action ramps up, some comedy pokes in to lighten things up, and the bond between our two leads is finally formed. It was at that point that I found myself having fun with the film. I was rooting for them to go and complete the mission. Unfortunately the parts come together just a little bit too late.