Director: Guy Ritchie (2015)
This big budget update of a much loved 1960’s spy series is sumptuous, smooth and stylish.
Although the loose vibe and fabulous locations are seductive, sadly the script and the chemistry aren’t.
4 series of the U.N.C.L.E. TV series ran from 1964 to 1968, plus there was the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1983).
Robert Vaughn starred as the American Napoleon Solo and British actor David McCallum as the Russian Illya Kuryakin.
Beyond the concept, period setting and character names not much remains of the show.
There’s not a radio pen in sight, no opening of Channel D, nor a hint of T.H.R.U.S.H. The U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) organisation of the title receives a very belated introduction.
Director Guy Ritchie suffered a career slump with the inglorious mis-steps of Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005).
He painstakingly rebuilt his reputation as a safe pair of blockbuster hands with the excellent Sherlock Holmes franchise: Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011).
Here he’s content to reject his customary zip and go against the grain of contemporary action movies. He is wilfully dismissive, almost contemptuous of his own plot.
Instead of constant wham bam action scenes he focuses on character and builds a mood of glamorous, languid indulgence which is rich in period detail.
It’s an admirable if potentially career-harming move by the writer/director/producer.
Having given Ritchie a name cast and a $75million budget, one can only imagine the horror of the studio’s executives on their first screening.
Certainly Ritchie can argue he included all the elements they wanted; cars, guns, girls, stunts, jokes – but the way he has editor James Herbert put it all together must have them tearing their hair out.
Even the sexually available and semi-naked hotel receptionist seems a studio imposition.
Elsewhere however there is a worrying confluence of violence and foreplay and a fair amount of dull macho posturing for which Ritchie can’t escape responsibility.
In 1963 the US and the USSR are threatening each other with nuclear annihilation.
Rogue nazi sympathiser Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) has stolen a computer disc. She’s a deliciously tall and cool glass of cyanide.
The disc contains data on how to super-enrich uranium to make nuclear bombs far more powerful than in existence, threatening the uneasy balance of the super-hot cold war. Whomever has the disc controls the world.
Top man at the CIA and art expert Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is unwillingly teamed up with ferocious KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).
Both receive orders to recover the disc at any cost.
But the two leads are hamstrung by dull, innuendo-laden banter and a desire to project a faultless accent.
While the British Cavill plays an American, the American Hammer plays a Russian.
Hammer has less dialogue and is more able to cope but Cavill’s lumbered with laborious exposition. His careful enunciation slows scenes to a crawl.
Doing his best work when not required to speak, Cavill’s – and the film’s – best moment comes when Solo takes time to appreciate the finer aspects of life as the action goes on behind him.
It’s possible he would have been a brilliant silent movie star back in the day.
With his chiselled features and broad frame he’s the most classically movie star-looking movie star since James Garner. He steps through the film with the stately and exquisitely tailored grace of the ageing Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief (1955).
The two spies recruit an East German motor mechanic Gaby Teller (Swedish Alicia Vikander). Her rocket scientist father is held by Victoria and the boys intend to use Gabby’s connections to infiltrate Victoria’s outfit.
Sporting a chic collection of outfits but metaphorically trouser-wearing, Gabby refuses to yield superiority to the boys in any department.
A grey-haired Hugh Grant shuffles on for a couple of scenes to deliver a masterclass in light comedy.
With a storming pop operatic soundtrack throughout, Ritchie saves his visual dynamism for the finale when the screen erupts into a frenzy of split screens, fast cuts and twisted camerawork.
With beautiful production design by Oliver Scholl captured with glossy delight by cinematographer John Mathieson, it makes for a very easy on the eye experience. Berlin in 1963 is expertly rendered.
Ritchie should be applauded for making a film with a strong identity and has the courage to stand or fall on it’s own terms.
But for all it’s speedboats, helicopters and a terrifically synchronised car chase, it’s a pity it’s not more full throttle.