Many of writer-director Guy Ritchie’s films — like “RocknRolla” or his two “Sherlock Holmes” adaptations — have been criticized for featuring a whole lot of style and a disappointing lack of substance. There’s truth to the idea of faking it until you make it, though, and Ritchie’s latest film, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” successfully fakes it, covering up a whole host of problems with some pleasantly diverting stylistic choices.
Based on the 1964 television series of the same name, “U.N.C.L.E.” follows CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, “Man of Steel”) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, “The Social Network”), forced to work together from opposite sides of the Cold War, each with orders to kill the other if data about a dangerous nuclear weapon falls into the other’s hands. Solo and Kuryakin team up with Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina”) to go undercover in Rome and track down Gaby’s father, a Nazi scientist who is working with Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki, “The Great Gatsby”) to create her own nuclear weapon.
The overarching issue with the film is that almost none of its ideas feel original. The plot itself, revolving around an illegal nuclear arms deal, is bland, and the entire arc of Solo and Kuryakin’s partnership is obvious from the beginning: they will start as foes, then become reluctant allies who develop a grudging respect for each other and likely end up friends. The same goes for their relationship(?)dynamic, established immediately with Solo’s suave sarcasm and Kuryakin’s stoicism, shattered frequently by violent fury. It’s the kind of dynamic in every buddy cop movie, from “Lethal Weapon” to “The Heat,” with one uptight guy who loosens up a bit and one who makes fun of the other.
The actors are good with the material, at least. Cavill maintains the same calm, collected demeanor throughout the entire film, but he’s an engaging presence, speaking in a stylized ’60s spy movie voice borrowed from Cary Grant and achieving badass status through his unbelievable nonchalance in the face of all the danger and secrets around him. Vikander is another standout, endearing in her drunken efforts to get Kuryakin to relax, and Debicki is surprisingly unsettling with her snakelike gaze —, both seductive and deadly as she sizes up Solo.
To a degree, it’s understandable that a film based on characters from a 1960’s movie would feel less fresh in 2015, rebooted in a time when a crime story about a nuclear arms deal and an unlikely partnership doesn’t seem very novel. Maybe it’d be unfaithful to the original characters if Solo and Kuryakin’s personalities were tweaked, or their mission not so by-the-numbers. Still, Ritchie’s script fails to overcome that lack of originality with the slightest subversion.
The biggest two problems with “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lie not in its lack of originality, though. It’d be easy to forget about that if every action scene was outstanding, but none reach the over-the-top, glorious heights of “Kingsman: The Secret Service” or “Mad Max: Fury Road,” to name two examples from earlier this year. There are several scenes that are certainly cool, especially one in which Solo, after casually having a snack in the driver’s seat of a truck overlooking a bay where Kuryakin is in serious danger, simply drives the truck into the water and crushes the enemy boat. There are none that are pure giddy fun, though, and giddiness, while not essential, is often the most powerful indicator of a great action scene.
The other issue, oddly enough, is easily exemplified by that mostly-great bay scene: there’s no real urgency. Sure, there’s something undeniably cool and even funny about Solo’s utter composure in the face of impending doom as armed men chase around his partner. Solo’s constant invulnerability becomes boring, though, when there’s never once a trace of real terror in Cavill’s eyes, even when Solo faces the threat of torture. Solo’s charisma and effortless confidence make him a fun character to watch, but the protagonist’s total lack of fear tells the viewer that there’s no need to be worried about these characters at all.
After laying out all these severe issues, the quality of “U.N.C.L.E.” seems pretty dire, but it’s amazing how much of an effect some fun stylistic choices can have. It’s easy to become detached in a movie like this when the story recycling is so obvious, but quick editing and split-screen sequences combined with a talented cast make you forget.
The most effective tool in hastily painting over the script’s shortcomings, though, is the film’s soundtrack. Songs like Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What” and Peppino Gagliardi’s “Che vuole questa musica stasera” (playing on the radio as Solo crashes his truck into the boat) are perfect for the period, and they lend a sense of juxtapositional fun in the same way that hearing classical music during gruesomely violent scenes can. More impressive, though, is composer Daniel Pemberton’s score, featuring sixties synthesizers, bass flutes and Hungarian milk jugs serving as drums. Each track is retro and lively, attaining a level of stylish spy fun that the lackluster plot and characters fail to achieve. Scenes that are predictable on paper crackle with the illusion of originality, and the accompaniment keeps everything moving along at a fast pace. “You’re watching a super cool, fun ’60s spy movie,” standout track “Escape from East Berlin” seems to hypnotically insist. It’s easy to fall for its spell.