In this ’60s spy spoofing TV show Get Smart, Agent 86 would often note that he or someone else had, “Missed it…by that much.” It’s how I felt while watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a serious spy movie…which was actually based on a different non-spoofing ’60s TV show. And while The Man From U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t terrible — in fact, it was better than many films based on TV shows, including the Get Smart movie — it does have a lot of little problems that keep it from really hitting its mark.
Set in 1963, during the height of the cold war, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. starts off with former thief turned CIA spy Napoleon Solo (Man Of Steel‘s Henry Cavill) trying to get a German auto mechanical named Gabby Teller (Ex Machina‘s Alicia Vikander) out of East Berlin, much to the chagrin of KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (The Lone Ranger‘s Armie Hammer). But when it’s revealed that some former Nazis had kidnapped Gabby’s scientist father, and were going to use her to force him to build a better nuclear bomb, Napoleon and Illya are told by their superiors to team up to protect Gabby, rescue her father, stop the Nazis, and (unbeknownst to each other) get dad’s nuclear secrets, even if it means killing their counterpart.
As spy thrillers go, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is, for the most part, stylish and smart. It not only has some rather clever moments, but it really delights in its mid-’60s timeframe. Granted, it looks more like what someone in 2015 thinks the mid-’60s were like, as opposed to what movies from the mid-’60s did look like. But, in a way, that’s actually better because the filmmakers had more fun with it than they would’ve had they been slavishly faithful.
The script for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also has some clever moments in its plotting, action, and dialog, especially when there’s a double entendre to be made. Sure, some of the funny quips did sound scripted, and not at all what someone might say off the cuff, but they were still entertaining.
The movie also avoids so many of the bad clichés that have ruined so many modern spy and action films: impossible coincidences, jokes that are just stupid puns or someone repeating a catch phrase, and stunt casting (much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of actors Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, who played Napoleon and Illya, respectfully, in the original show).
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also has — again, for the most part — a solid cast. Vikander is lovely and engaging as Gabby, while Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) is wickedly delightful as the bad gal Victoria Vinciguerra. But the star of the show is Cavill, who’s not only dashing and debonair, but also does a great job convincing you he’s a James Bond-ian gentleman spy, right down to his man whorish behavior.
But it’s here, in the casting, that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. starts to fall apart. Specifically, with Hammer, who is not only rather dull, but he is also unconvincing as a Russian, a brawler, and as a guy with anger management issues. It’s also why his romantic inclinations toward Gabby fall flat; you get why he’d want to kiss her, but not why she’d want to kiss him, which is why these moments feel forced. Though the fact that they also come up so early in the movie’s timeline doesn’t help, either.
The same problem befalls Luca Calvani (When In Rome), who plays Victoria’s equally evil husband, Alexander, but is hardly as threatening, or even as memorable, as Debicki. In fact, it wasn’t until I looked Calvani up on Wikipedia to get his name and credits that I learned that he was supposed to be the main bad guy. Watching the movie, he seemed more like Victoria’s sidekick. And not a very good one, either.
There’s also some narrative issues with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. First off, Napoleon, Illya, and Gabby, in various combinations, often talk about “the mission” and being spies right out in the open. Y’know where anyone might overhear them.
Then there’s this weird bit, towards the end, when a guy who is about to torture someone decides to tell his life story as it relates to his penchant for inflicting pain, and how it all connects to World War II. It really doesn’t fit the film, or serve any purpose, and really sticks out, especially when they start flashing actual newsreel footage from the second world war. It’s almost like they’re trying to give this movie some depth. But, instead, it’s such an odd, out-of-place moment that I half expected someone in the audience to start laughing or exclaim, “Oh god!” in exasperation.
As for how well The Man From U.N.C.L.E. compares to the original show…sorry, couldn’t tell you. While I watched a ton of Get Smart as a kid, I don’t remember seeing U.N.C.L.E. at all.
In the end, all of these little problems I had with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. don’t destroy the movie so much as derail it. It’s still entertaining, but not enough that you’d want to see it more than once, or see a sequel, or even think to go back and watch the original show. Which is why I might watch Get Smart this weekend instead.