A remake of a TV version James Bond is somehow the perfect creative outlet for English director Guy Ritchie, who’s seen his slick Sherlock Holmes series spurned for an even slicker TV series, and at a time when James Bond movies – arguably at their best ever – are pulling muscles trying to be taken seriously, with boatloads of fans still muttering that they just ain’t what they used to be as they ignore Roger Deakins’s brilliant cinematography (but hey, that’ll never change). Ritchie’s modus operandi with 2015 effort The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a proposed franchise maker before he moves onto a proposed franchise maker about King Arthur, is to be fun at all costs, returning to the gadget- and quip-heavy filler that viewers miss from their favorite old spy movies. His buddy Matthew Vaughn beat him to the punch with the pleasurably juvenile Kingsman: The Secret Service, but for all the adults out there who miss the twinkle in Sean Connery’s eye or the action chops of Pierce Brosnan, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is Ritchie’s gift to them.
Henry Cavill delivers just the right amount of smarm as American spy Napoleon Solo, in this version of events a crafty ex-black marketeer recruited by the CIA, who’s forced to team up with Armie Hammer’s KGB spy Illya Kuryakin to track down plans for a sort of EZ-bake nuclear bomb before it falls into the hands of neo-Nazi terrorists. Their only lead is East German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose estranged scientist father is apparently building a bomb for the enemy. All three share the screen with aplomb, even as Hammer struggles the worst with his casting against nationality, his gargled Russian accent struggling to come clean at any second. Still, he holds up his end of the bargain, acting as the butt of most jokes playing the chivalrous brute to Cavill’s cocky American and Vikander’s vulnerable spitfire. The last ingredient of the classic spy movie mix is the locale, and here it’s Rome, which couldn’t be a more obvious stylistic choice. With the 60’s in full bloom, it embodies the revivified opulence and romance of post-war Europe, giving Ritchie’s production design team plenty of room to work as they shift from ancient ruins to Formula 1 racetracks.
Directed with the utmost polish, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would have it all if it weren’t for one thing: the stakes just aren’t there. Ritchie, like Vaughn or Edgar Wright, strives to properly homage the entertainment he’s remaking, but he can’t contain himself when it comes to taking the piss out of things. Early scenes play out hilariously, like the unseen brawl between a drunken Gaby and the four-times-bigger Illya, or Solo’s impromptu picnic as he watches an oblivious Illya fend off goons in a closed circuit speedboat chase. There’s even a recurring bit wherein Ritchie echoes Spaghetti Westerns, slow-zooming on Illya’s face any time he’s slighted, but who insists on calling the debonair Solo ‘Cowboy’ any chance he gets. So Ritchie has his cake, but then he forgets to eat it too. It’s the same complaint that could be levied against his Sherlock movies. He completely blows the final action set piece, subverting any hint of tension in favor of a cleverly edited split-screen montage and overly choreographed chase, dating the movie faster than you can say “bullet time,” and forgetting that just as much as people like to be in the know about things, they still want to see “proper action and shit,” to quote Hot Fuzz‘s Danny Butterman. Great fashion, top shelf puns, and Ritchie’s macabre sense of humor are all well and good, but Ritchie needs to temper the suaveness once in awhile so that audiences care less about the design of a scene and more about how the characters will live to see the next one.