It’s hard to make an exciting action movie when you refuse to break a sweat.

That is the lesson of the new big-screen version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which preens and parades with convincing swagger but rarely provides much in the thrills department. Everyone and everything in U.N.C.L.E. is beautiful, from the European locales to the desaturated cinematography to the enviably attractive cast, but there’s nothing below the surface; at times, it feels more like a feature-length adaptation of an Italian cologne ad than an update of an old spy show. Between the outrageously handsome stars, a swarm of split-screens and camera tracks, and its pervasive too-cool-for-school vibe, Guy Ritchie might as well have called this thing The B.M.O.C. From U.N.C.L.E. 

The actual title comes from the 1960s TV series starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, two secret agents from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain who join forces to defeat a terrorist organization. Ritchie’s version is an origin story, detailing how Solo (now played by Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) came to work for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. The two men first meet in East Germany as adversaries, with Solo working to exfiltrate a mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander) so she can help the CIA find her missing rocket-scientist father and Kuryakin trying to prevent the couple’s escape to the West.

This opening sequence, a foot and car chase through the streets of ’60s Berlin, sets the cheeky tone, and the combative relationship between the two leads; Solo is suave and witty, while Kuryakin is angry and humorless. Neither can stand the other. Here, at least, Ritchie delivers the action goods, with nimble camerawork and pirouetting cars amidst Solo and Gaby’s mad dash to cross the Berlin Wall.

Moments after Ritchie establishes Solo and Kuryakin as sworn enemies he makes them partners, when the U.S. and Russia strike a tenuous alliance to track down Gaby’s father before he can provide invaluable nuclear secrets to an Italian crime organization headed by Elizabeth Debicki’s ultra-fashionable Victoria Vinciguerra. The plan calls for the bitter rivals to peacefully coexist long enough to infiltrate the Vinciguerra mob and retrieve its atomic weapon, while the uptight Kuryakin poses as Gaby’s fiancé and a few (mostly theoretical) sparks fly between the Communists.

Ritchie’s reimagined U.N.C.L.E. represents a clever genre combo; the oil-and-water chemistry of a classic buddy cop movie with the aesthetics and conventions of a period spy thriller. It’s an idea loaded with potential, most of which remains unexploited by The Man From U.N.C.L.E., whose two photogenic leads struggle to bring their characters’ competition or inevitable friendship to life. Both seem more preoccupied with their deeply mannered accents than each other, and they tend to do more posing than acting (though it must be said the pair make ideal models for the chic vintage costumes designed by Joanna Johnston).

The film isn’t lacking for cleverness, and a few of its sly deconstructions of action movie formulas land nicely (like the moment when Solo takes a break from a boat chase to enjoy a bottle of wine he finds in a stolen truck). But at a certain point, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. starts to feel a little too cute for its own good. One anticipated action scene after another is elided or skipped completely, and several big story beats play out in the background while Solo and Kuryakin bicker in the foreground. The gag works a couple of times, but eventually it curdles from winking joke to empty, cocky posturing.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is competently made, stylish as hell, and never less than exceedingly pleasant to watch. What’s missing, though, is even the slightest sense of urgency. Cavill and Hammer’s laconic attitudes make for a striking (and not particularly flattering) comparison with Tom Cruise, the star of the other spy thriller currently playing in multiplexes, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Cruise plays everything with absolute intensity. His every gesture and run and kick elevate what might otherwise be a formulaic thriller by imbuing each moment with a sense of importance. Even as U.N.C.L.E.’s narrative ramps up (and Hugh Grant pops ups in a welcome cameo as a mysterious British naval officer), Cavill and Hammer remain perfectly composed, apparently more preoccupied with the creases in their slacks than the fate of the world. They look great, but otherwise this is a fairly large meh from U.N.C.L.E.


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