by David Robinson, Movie Reviewer
Now available on video.”The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a prequel, of sorts, or maybe an origin story. If you are old enough to remember the 1960s TV series, you may have wondered how the unlikely pair of Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) wound up together. (Actually, if you’re that old, you may have trouble remembering anything: I speak from experience.) If so,writer/director Guy Ritchie’s latest action flick comes up with one plausible, if not exactly original, explanation.
See, the two were originally enemies on either side of the Cold War. (Ah, the good ol’ days when wars were cold!) The movie tells us that their governments’ spy agencies assigned them to stop an East German scientist from building a nuclear bomb, working together for the nonce but with the option of killing the other guy if need be or when they succeed--whichever comes first. So the tension between Solo (Henry Cavill, the latest screen Superman) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, the latest LoneRanger) is present from the get-go but is also played as a running joke.
These two frenemies enlist the aid of Gaby (Alicia Vikander, the gorgeous robot in “Ex Machina”), a beautiful German auto mechanic who may or not also be a spy but is certainly the scientist’s daughter. Her Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth), an ex-Nazi torturer, also gets into the mix, which Richie stirs frantically, using many of the cinematic tricks he employed in the two Sherlock Holmes movies he crafted with Robert Downey Jr. as the title character. The closest thing here, in terms of Brit aplomb, is Hugh Grant, as a chief spook, who adds some drollery to the proceedings in a too-brief supporting role.
Unhappily, none of the principals is Downey. Cavill looks wooden, as opposed to the smooth con artist he is supposed to be. Hammer’s Russian accent comes and goes, even as he hulks about the action scowlingly. He’s (mutually?) attracted to Gaby, but their first kiss keeps getting interrupted, the movie remaining safely inside the “PG-13” zone.
The trio’s nemesis, an Italian countess named Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), wants the bomb because, well, she’s a villainess, and that’s what they do. She bats her eyes at Solo, beds him, drugs him, sets him up in an electric chair — there’s just no end to her mischief. (Curiously, the torture scene that follows provides one of film’s few truly funny moments, Richie keeping the camera still long enough and framing the action neatly to create a visual joke that keeps getting better.)
Not to give anything away, but the world — or at least some major city — is saved from nuclear disaster, after a number of chase scenes, gun fights, and tough guy confrontations. The action sometimes stops inexplicably in its tracks, costing it comic momentum. There are ‘60s references aplenty — cars, clothes, music — if you like that sort of thing.
I do, but it’s not enough reason to have resurrected the franchise or to buy or rent this one. “Mission Impossible” it ain’t.