‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’: Broken tentpole

August 12, 2015

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Guy Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a day late and a dollar short — actually, make that several seasons late, for anyone who watches the outrageously funny animated series, “Archer.”

Watching Henry Cavill deadpan his way through this film as CIA agent Napoleon Solo (the name says it all, doesn’t it?), I kept waiting for him to drop one of those random one-liners that punctuate the “Archer” episodes like bubbles of laughing gas. Cavill looks the part and could easily play the human version of this cartoon character.

Unfortunately, Ritchie and his cowriter Lionel Wigram didn’t have a roomful of comedy writers to punch up their soft script. The result is a heavy-footed film that barely gets by on one actor’s charm, animated by some patently bogus-looking special effects.

For those of us ancient enough to have been impressionable TV viewers when “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” aired on NBC beginning in 1964, the memories hold not the slightest whiff of a spoof. The show was TV’s answer to the growing popularity of the James Bond films and the belief that the audience was intrigued with intrigue and spies (indeed, Bond creator Ian Fleming was one of the show’s originators).

While there was humor in the give-and-take between Solo (Robert Vaughn), colleague Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) and boss Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), this show was meant to be semi-serious and exciting, along the lines of the original “Mission: Impossible” (which went on air two years later). If you wanted parody, you tuned in to “Get Smart” (which debuted the season after “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”).

Now all three of these series have graduated to the big screen — and you can tell from the final scenes of “U.N.C.L.E.” that it’s meant to be a tentpole franchise. It worked for “Mission: Impossible,” though that series is showing its age 20 years and five films into the process.

Ritchie is a pioneering cinematic stylist whose early films broke ground by infusing the most eye-catching visual effects from TV commercials into the British gangster film. Unfortunately, he has never been particularly strong on story. Nor is he a comedy writer: He’s a director with a kinetic and playful visual style, who seems to completely lose the thread when he takes the reins of a big-budget studio franchise (i.e., the cynically cash-grabbing “Sherlock Holmes” films with Robert Downey Jr.).

So it is with “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” which has a repetitive plot and tropes. The plot involves a wild-card American agent, Solo, who is forced to team with a KGB agent who is his mortal enemy, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), to save the world from … what? Nazis with an atom bomb? In 1963 Europe? Something like that.

The original series always saw Solo and Kuryakin embroiling some civilian in their machinations, putting the person in danger before saving his or her uncomprehending tail. So it is here, with Solo rescuing a female auto mechanic from behind the wall in East Germany. Her missing father is an A-bomb architect and the CIA fears that a hidden Nazi cell is using him to create an armed warhead. So they need her to find him.

The influence of video-game imagery has become a plague on action films and this film is no exception, particularly during a cross-country off-road chase that looks phony and cobbled-together. The actual action looks manufactured — and not cleverly manufactured, either.

There’s also the problem of Hammer. I hate to be the one to break it to Hollywood, but Armie Hammer is a handsome cipher without much range. Here he seems to be playing the same character he did in the execrable “Lone Ranger,” except with a bad Russian accent. Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress who plays the German mechanic, sounds more convincing speaking English than Hammer does.

Yes, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” has its moments: a laugh here, an impressive bit of physical action there. But it’s sandwiched into an underperforming script with a cast of mostly unknowns (aside from Cavill, Hammer and Vikander, only Hugh Grant and Jared Harris provide familiar faces, along with newcomer Elizabeth Debicki from the Baz Luhrmann “Great Gatsby”).

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is essentially an origin story, meant to knock over the first domino in a line of lucrative sequels. That prospect seems dubious, based on this film.

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