Here's the thing about The Man from U. N. C. L. E.: it's a pointless film. About as pointless as The Avengers' ill-fated big-screen version was 15 years ago, even if Guy Ritchie's film is much more accomplished and smooth and much less clunky.
The fact remains that no one was clamoring for a big-screen version of the mid-sixties, ersatz-Bond TV series starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum; and Matthew Vaughn (formerly Mr. Ritchie's producer and currently a much more interesting director than him) pre-empted any comedic, retro take on the spy genre for the foreseeable future with Kingsman: The Secret Service, a much more radical and gleefully anarchic homage/spoof than The Man from U. N. C. L. E. can ever aim to be.
So, is this just another of the big studios' erroneous beliefs that any vintage TV property can be successfully retooled for the modern age? The box-office results seem to say so, even if it's also true that this was a labour of love for Mr. Ritchie and, after the Sherlock Holmes films, Warners could not feasibly say no to him. And, really, there's nothing inherently wrong or offensive with the film, done in the British director's typical insouciant style of frantic, fast-cutting action offset by deadpan, English-style comedy. There's also an innate understanding of the property: it would not work to update to modern days a series whose raison d'être disappeared with the end of the Cold War.
As such, this "origin story" for the international undercover organisation U. N. C. L. E. (truly introduced only at the very end and seeming to set up a possible sequel) takes place in 1963, as CIA smooth operator Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB brawny hard nut Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are required to work together to locate German scientist Udo Teller (Christian Berkel) and his nuclear weapon plans. Mr. Ritchie has great fun with the period trappings, expertly recreated by production designer Oliver Scholl, and with the back-and-forth between Solo, Kuryakin and Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the scientist's daughter whom they help extract from East Berlin.
The sly, cheeky romantic triangle with the agents is also a parlor-room romantic comedy in disguise. Interestingly enough, this becomes a sort of (involuntary?) throwback to Stanley Donen's sixties spy comedies like Charade and Arabesque, though Mr. Ritchie does not have Mr. Donen's elegance nor actors that can successfully work with it. Mr. Cavill looks the part but comes off as smarmy rather than smooth, and Mr. Hammer, a solid actor often straitjacketed in roles that seem designed to turn him into the next Brendan Fraser, overplays the stodginess, with Ms. Vikander in a somewhat thankless to-and-fro that cannot raise her co-stars' game. Look no further than Hugh Grant's effortless self-deprecating touch and Elizabeth Debicki's deliciously OTT villainess to see just what The Man from U. N. C. L. E. could be if everyone was on the same wavelength.
For all that, again, there's nothing inherently wrong or offensive with Mr. Ritchie's film: it's entertaining, occasionally charming, and generally enjoyable - but instantly forgettable and, truly, pointless.
THE MAN FROM U. N. C. L. E.
Cast Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Luca Calvani, Misha Kuznetsov, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Director Guy Ritchie; screenwriters Mr. Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, from a story by Jeff Kleeman, David Campbell Wilson, Mr. Wigram and Mr. Ritchie and the TV series created by Sam Rolfe and Norman Felton; cinematographer John Mathieson (widescreen); composer Daniel Pemberton; designer Oliver Scholl; costumes Joanna Johnston; editor James Herbert; producers John Davis, Steve Clark-Hall, Mr. Wigram and Mr. Richie, for Warner Bros. Pictures, Ritchie-Wigram Productions and Davis Entertainment Company in association with Ratpac-Dune Entertainment
Screened August 26th 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, distributor press screening