The opening sequence of director Guy Ritchie’s “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is promising — a clever, action-filled chase through East Berlin as American agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) attempts to get his cool and quippy self and Alicia Vikander (Gaby Teller) into the safety of West Berlin. Hot on their heels is Russian KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), whose bulk and brooding determination is its own kind of super power.
Both men are exceptionally capable and cucumber-cool under pressure, and anyone familiar with the source material (which may not be too many of you considering the television show was cancelled almost 50 years ago) knows that Solo and Kuryakin are destined to become unlikely American and Russian superspy-partners. Unlikely because the year is 1963 and the war is cold.
As I said, the opening is promising, which means it is not great, and yet it is still the best part of the 116 minutes to come, which is nothing more than an uninspired, warmed-over James Bond movie.
The plot involves Nazis and Nazi gold and a nuke and a ticking clock. There is no tension, though, because the tone is intentionally frothy and the idea is for the audience to sit back and enjoy witty banter and exciting action sequences in exotic locales.
“U.N.C.L.E.” has its moments, just not enough of them. Cavill and Hammer share zero chemistry, and as Hammer’s love interest, Teller is so physically tiny that the duo would be more convincing as a ventriloquist act. For whatever reason, Cavill’s Solo speaks with a bizarre, highly-mannered cadence that only distracts.
The most frustrating part of the experience is sitting and waiting for things to happen, for the plot to take-off, for 5th gear to kick in, to feel the whoosh as your head is bounced off the back of your seat because here we go!
Never happens. Things just plod-plod-plod. The engine races as we inch along.
Because the stakes aren’t believable, the action sequences lack excitement and tension. Ritchie’s horrible editing choices ensure we can’t follow any of the fight scenes. Not a single gadget has a spark of originality. The cars and clothes are predictably cool, but after “Austin Powers” and “Mad Men,” going back to the colorful sixties has lost much of its charm.
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is an origin story, the obvious first chapter in a hoped-for franchise. This is bound to disappoint fans eager to see their beloved television series and all of its touchstones brought to life on the big screen. Instead it’s a tease promising to keep that promise in the next installment — if this disappointing first impression doesn’t kill the chance for part two.
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