There’s a scene in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., quite hilarious in fact, where Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is sitting in a truck, eating a sandwich and drinking beer, while a medium-speed boat chase occurs outside.
Watching said movie is a lot like that scene: it’s very fun, but also very detached from some important elements that would’ve made it great, like plot and character development, and even action. It’s a movie perfect for the final days of summer, and endless replays on HBO or Showtime, but you kind of wish there was just more.
The one thing not lacking is style, the buzzword nearly every review has lead with. Directed by Guy Ritchie, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a stunning-looking, incredibly well-made film. It’s slathered in gloss, making every location, costume, and high-speed chase look like they were ripped from the pages of Vogue. The cast, one of the most impossibly attractive in recent memory, move through scenes with immaculate precision, rarely a hair out of place. That should sound highly improbable for a film ostensibly about nuclear war espionage, and it is. Ritchie has painted 1960s Cold War-era Europe as pure fantasy; beautiful, sleek, sexy, and unattainable.
That might work great for a fashion editorial, but for a 90-plus minute film, you might be yearning for more. U.N.C.L.E. often looks like it’s doing more than it actually is. Fun cinematic ticks and tricks, that nearly succeed in giving the film a personality, keep the pace brisk, but it doesn’t really need to be. The main threat of danger is vague to the point of irrelevancy, and while there are plenty of explosions, gunfights, and body-tussling, chasing after that threat ultimately felt pointless.
Time would’ve been better spent with the two leads, Cavill’s Solo and Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin, and their shenanigans. Despite all of the running, driving, and punching, the two stars never really do much of substance, which is a shame since they definitely had moments of rivalrous, even playful, sibling-like rapport. The contrast that Napoleon and Illya represented, America’s cool-as-a-cucumber indifference to Russia’s simmering-but-potent emotion, would’ve made for a really intriguing story had Ritchie tapped into it. Instead, we have two very capable actors behaving more like chess pieces than fully fleshed characters. The most lively of the bunch is Alicia Vikander as Gabby, the slightly reckless car mechanic would’ve been a love interest for Illya under better circumstances.
It’s boggling how a film constantly referred to as “sexy” was so lacking in any real romance. The closest U.N.C.L.E. came to passion was a topless woman walking away from a robed Henry Cavill, and plenty of pun-filled quips. Why not show the hookup between Napoleon and Viktoria, played with deliciously icy evil by Elizabeth Debicki? Why not take the quiet but palpable connection between Illya and Gabby further? It’s such a shame to waste such an attractive and talented cast on nothing but PG-rated teasing.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is certainly not a terrible film, and it’s bright look certainly fits the season better than most blockbuster fare. It’s easy to get lost in all of the steely looks and East-German drag races. When you get back to your senses, though, it’s even easier to wonder why there was really nothing behind it all.