Thursday, August 13, 2015

An acceptable 'Man from U.N.C.L.E.'

Director Guy Ritchie never quite finds the right buoyancy, but his revival of a'60s TV hit proves entertaining enough.

What's at stake in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., director Guy Ritchie's belated attempt to bring a '60s TV series to the big screen?

The end of the word; that kind of thing.

That's the nonchalantly delivered answer given by one the characters in a story about two reluctant partners -- an American CIA agent and a Soviet spy -- who must recover a nuclear bomb from fiends who want to control the world.

The year: 1963. The attitude? Shall we say, relaxed?

Ritchie -- of Sherlock Holmes fame -- takes an unusually low-key approach to spy material that, wisely, I think, has been kept in its original period rather than straining for a contemporary update.

Ritchie doles out the action sparingly in a movie in which '60s styles provide a substantial part of the pleasure. Credit on-the-nose work from the movie's set decorators and from costume and art directors who create a witty, nostalgia-laced environment.

Entertaining without finding quite the right buoyancy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. casts Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) as Napoleon Solo, a smooth-talking thief who's forced into the service of the CIA.

A blandly handsome Cavill would have done well to add a bit of twinkle to at least one of Solo's eyes.

Armie Hammer does better as Illya Kuryakin, the Russian KBG agent who's teamed with Solo in what amounts to an origins story about how the spy organization U.N.C.L.E. gets its start.

Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) plays an East German auto mechanic who's thrown into the mix. She proves more interesting than either of the male leads.

A subdued Hugh Grant has a small role as the head of U.N.C.L.E., a role played by Leo G. Carroll in the TV series, which ran from 1964-1968 and attained broadcast blockbuster status.

For the record Robert Vaughn portrayed Solo in the original; David McCallum played Illya.

A routine plot falls short of espionage greatness. Solo and Illya are assigned to find Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a German scientist who who has been captured by the movie's villains and forced to build a nuclear bomb.

Solo and Illya hope Vikander's Gaby, who happens to be Teller's daughter, will lead them to her father. The journey takes everyone to Rome.

Added to all this are a wealthy, stylish villainess (Elizabeth Debicki) and a former Nazi (Sylvester Groth), another obvious bad guy.

Groth anchors Ritchie's slyly comic treatment of an obviously serious torture situation, one of the movie's droller moments.

Should there be a sequel -- and the movie is set up for one -- Ritchie and company may work out some of the kinks, which include lighting a fire under Cavill.

Meanwhile, what arrives on screen qualifies as reasonable, mid-August entertainment that goes down easily, despite its problems.

Lavish and colorful, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also is a little less crazed than Ritchie's work in the frenetic Sherlock Holmes series. For me, that's a plus.

No comments: