Cavill, Hammer Struggle In Bland "Man From U.N.C.L.E."

Say what you will about Guy Ritchie’s flavorless “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and his two timbered stars – the movie is a gigantic leap forward for the mannequin acting community.

Henry Cavill (“Man Of Steel”) and Armie Hammer (“The Lone Ranger”) lead as the most blasé spy duo imaginable, filling the shoes of CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB muscle Illya Kurykin like a child clomping around in his father’s wingtips. It’s only endearing in that they seem to have no idea just how unnatural they look.

Based on the well-received but not exactly ubiquitous NBC series that ran from 1964 to 1968, the ’60s-set movie is predictably good looking – it is a Guy Ritchie joint, after all – never short on impeccable fashion, beautiful women, and vehicular mayhem. Its third act is actually a modestly enjoyable throwback to the Roger Moore era of Bond films, hitting the tone that Ritchie protégé Matthew Vaughn missed earlier this year with the grotesque, overwrought “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”

But getting to Act III is a chore, an exercise in room temperature characters and a visual style so slick that the whole project threatens to hydroplane.

The story is familiar. Two spies from dueling agencies are made to join forces to stop a veiled criminal organization from developing nuclear capabilities – but only after said spies have become engaged a knock-down-drag-out rivalry. With British actor Cavill doing an American accent and American actor Hammer doing a Russian one, audiences might be distracted enough to miss Ritchie’s utterly pedestrian dialogue (co-written by Lionel Wigram) and linear storytelling.

Yes, “U.N.C.L.E.” is the epitome of style over substance, camera lingering on leading lady Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”) like a binocular-toting George McFly, soundtrack trying desperately to make up for the plot’s void of momentum. Its takes a full half hour for Ritchie to find a human moment in his story, and even then it’s something as simple as Gaby (Vikander) holding an impromptu dance party in the hotel suite she shares with Kurykin.

There’s one great scene in the movie. The death of one of the pic’s villains is gleefully staged and shot, bringing some honest-to-God charisma out of Cavill. (Hammer gets no such moment.)

Guy Ritchie has oft been labeled a minor filmmaker – his “Sherlock Holmes” films are undeniable fluff – but even for him “U.N.C.L.E.” feels inconsequential. It’s hard to imagine a single instance of someone on set getting genuinely excited about what they were doing. There’s nothing awful here, but there’s nothing expressly good either, and sometimes apathy is harder to swallow than outright dislike. The misuse of Hugh Grant and Jared Harris in supporting roles, however brief, only underlines the problem.

Even fans of the original TV show will be hard-pressed to find something of note in this update, unlikely to be won over by Cavill and Hammer stepping in for beloved character actors Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

Everyone involved can do better, has done better, will do better.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: August 14, 2015
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenwriter: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity)