‘U.N.C.L.E.’ is high style, low sub­stance

The China Post - - ARTS - BY LIND­SEY BAHR

It’s not un­til the cli­max of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” a col­or­ful, Cold War-era spy thriller, that its main fail­ing be­comes clear: The plot doesn’t mat­ter. The char­ac­ters don’t care. The script doesn’t care. And, the au­di­ence shouldn’t care ei­ther.

That doesn’t make this odd adap­ta­tion of the 1960s NBC se­ries bad. But it is a false prom­ise that dis­tracts from some of the other plea­sures (and mis­steps) of the spec­ta­cle. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” mer­ci­fully does not re­quire any knowl­edge of its tele­vi­sion ori­gin. In fact, the for­get­table acro­nym is ut­tered once and ex­plained only in text in the clos­ing cred­its.

This ode to hand­some men, women, clothes and cars is less about a Rus­sian (Ar­mie Ham­mer) and an Amer­i­can (Henry Cav­ill) team­ing up to in­fil­trate a shad­owy or­ga­ni­za­tion with nu­clear am­bi­tions, than a sort of pas­tiche of the ‘60s spy genre de­rived from Vogue mag­a­zine spreads.

Di­rec­tor Guy Ritchie of­fers an in­trigu­ing and cap­ti­vat­ing in­tro­duc­tion, though, weav­ing to­gether hu­mor, ac­tion, and stylish, an­gu­lar shots in a dis­arm­ingly sim­ple, but ef­fec­tive open­ing se­quence. Amer­i­can agent Napoleon Solo (Cav­ill) needs to get a girl, Gaby (Alicia Vikan­der), daugh­ter of “Hitler’s fa­vorite rocket sci­en­tist,” out of East Ber­lin, while Rus­sian agent Illya Kuryakin (Ham­mer) tries to stop that from hap­pen­ing.

The scene builds ten­sion ex­pertly and works with the con­straints of the 1960s cars to make the chase ex­cit­ing. The suave Solo is un­fazed by set­backs, and yet he’s still in awe of Illya’s brute power. In­deed, Illya is made out to be a su­per­hu­man. At 6’ 5”, Ham­mer is an im­pos­ing pres­ence, but even on screen, the won­der with which ev­ery­one treats this “gi­ant” seems like a stretch. You just ac­cept it, though, much like the Amer­i­can ac­tor’s car­toon­ish Rus­sian ac­cent.

It’s all used for com­edy, and the phys­i­cal­ity gets even more ab­surd. Over the course of the film, Illya throws, in no par­tic­u­lar or­der, a ho­tel cof­fee ta­ble, a tele­vi­sion, a cafe bistro ta­ble, Henry Cav­ill, a mo­tor­bike, and a trunk that he’s just torn off of a mov­ing car.

Alas, the movie doesn’t ful­fil the tease of the open­ing se­quence. From there it de­volves into a se­ries of rev­e­la­tions with di­min­ish­ing re­turns. Illya and Solo team up, give each other pet names (Cow­boy and Peril), de­bate fash­ion and travel to pic­turesque lo­cales all in ser­vice of find­ing this rogue nu­clear bomb.

It’s the type of film that’s more in­ter­ested in hav­ing side char­ac­ters say pretty things like “I’m on a strict diet of cham­pagne and caviar,” and mak­ing sure model-like ho­tel clerks sub­mit within min­utes of ca­sual propo­si­tions, than it is in its main story.

Solo and Illya’s odd cou­ple pair­ing is woe­fully un­der- used, too. We know that they’re two sides of an ide­o­log­i­cal coin and a thief and a thug at heart, but this movie doesn’t even at­tempt to serve that ten­sion. Mostly it’s silent glares and the oc­ca­sional strate­gic dis­agree­ment: the most amus­ing of which are over clothes. Per­haps this film should have been an all­out farce.

What plea­sure does ex­ist is in the care­fully crafted aes­thet­ics and the ex­ag­ger­ated act­ing, es­pe­cially Cav­ill’s dev­il­ish charm. Vikan­der and El­iz­a­beth De­bicki (as the glam­orous big bad) are de­li­ciously cool.

Ritchie, mean­while, ex­per­i­ments with in-depth tan­gents and bold, sug­ges­tive sub­ti­tles, as though he’s at­tempt­ing some­thing ap­prox­i­mat­ing Tarantino-lite. It doesn’t come close to that, but the catchy, per­fectly timed mu­sic choices do go a long way in mak­ing the over­all ex­pe­ri­ence much more fun.

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” could be smarter. It could be faster. It could have given Hugh Grant more to do. But, in this case, beau­ti­ful, ad­e­quate and es­capist is al­most enough.

English with Chi­nese sub­ti­tles Ac­tion, Ad­ven­ture, Sci-Fi USA 100 min.

2015 Four young ge­niuses find them­selves thrown into an al­ter­nate and dan­ger­ous uni­verse that al­ters their phys­i­cal forms and also their lives rad­i­cally. They will have to learn to master their new abil­i­ties and work to­gether to save the Earth from a for­mer friend turned en­emy.

Illya Kuryakin, played by Ar­mie Ham­mer, races on a BMW 1968 R-se­ries mo­tor­cy­cle in an at­tempt to stop a mys­te­ri­ous in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal group.

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