Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is in the Communist sector of Berlin, but he’s a foreigner, in fact he’s a C.I.A. spy there to collect Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a missing scientist. He was captured from the Nazis by the Americans at the end of World War II for use in their nuclear weapons development programme, but now it is the early nineteen-sixties he seems to have been captured by somebody else, though there are reports he has been seen recently. Which is why Gaby would appear to be safer in American hands, and once she finishes working on her car – she’s a mechanic – she and Solo set off for the Berlin Wall with a view to getting her out of there. However, one Soviet agent (Armie Hammer) is determined to prevent that...
That agent is Ilya Kuryakin, which if you know your vintage television should have set us up with an origin story for the sixties spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which in a way it did, but more than that it set us up with a fashion show where the cast struck poses and if there was any plot to be getting on with, it was almost incidental. Under director Guy Ritchie’s guidance, this was all about invoking a very particular kind of sixties cool as seen in the classiest movies of the era, where the visuals were uppermost in the importance of what should be presented, and if the cast were kitted out in the sharpest suits and chicest dresses, arranged in the most rarefied locations, then that was as much the point as delivering the story.
No, actually it was the point, and Ritchie was faithful to the ethos to the extent of allowing what the most capable directors of the sixties would not allow: it stifled the whole film. Arriving hot on the heels of a mass of spy tales in the cinema of a variety of flavours depending on your taste, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a hollow experience when style was its reason for being, and anything else was an afterthought, so for most of the running time it was perversely reluctant to stage any action scenes whatsoever. This had Ilya, here retooled as hair-trigger tempered fighting machine, set up for fisticuffs only for the camera to cut away to something else while he got on with it, and when a motorboat chase was conducted, this preferred to watch Solo eating a sandwich.
Not the most palm-sweating, teeth gritted, edge of the seat adventure you’d ever see, then, and this was almost bullish in its fixation on the supposed cool it was conjuring up to the detriment of anything else. With a cast required to be clothes horses more or less, that Cavill and Hammer made little impression or were really given much to work with was perhaps not such a surprise, but Vikander’s role was a disappointment; she was offered the odd bit of business to prove she wasn’t some pushover bit of decorative stuff (being a mechanic, wrestling with Hammer, getting feisty and so on), but we weren’t fooled, she was cast because she looked good in the clobber, not because she was asked to be a great thespian.
Fair enough, you wouldn’t begrudge the actors for being allowed to let their hair down and play dressing up for two hours, but it should have been a perk of the job more than the be all and end all as this emerged as. Hugh Grant showed up as the series’ boss Mr Waverley, but was obviously there in a nominal capacity when he wouldn’t have been missed should he not have turned up at all, and the air of artificiality, while inescapable when watching reruns of the source given it was a basic James Bond rip-off for the small screen, was not something that came alive when the entire production was delivered with a wry smile that quickly turned unctuous. What you were left with was a spy story that would have preferred to be set in the fashion world, sort of a period Zoolander, as its interest in the Cold War was as much a put on as the rest of it, that old cliché of style over substance well and truly in effect and with no sense of peril for any of the characters, fatal in an espionage yarn. Daniel Pemberton’s score was nice enough, though not a patch on Jerry Goldsmith’s theme, which really was cool.