Review: The Man From UNCLE is a star vehicle without the stars

George Clooney. Michael Fassbender. Ryan Gosling. Those are just a few of the actors that had been attached (or rumored) to star in the big-screen adaptation of the 1960s spy series The Man From UNCLE. It’s a varied but intriguing group, all from when Steven Soderbergh was set to direct the film as one of his last hurrah victory laps before he swore off movies altogether. But attachments are only as good as the trade magazine paper they’re announced on, and in 2011 Soderbergh ended up leaving the project over budget and casting issues.

And here we are, four years later, presented with the final product from Snatch and Sherlock Holmes director Guy Ritchie. If you’ve seen one Ritchie flick you know his style: outrageous violence and outrageous humor, matched with whiz-bang transitions and an assured sense of visual polish. They’re upper-class (or just more British) versions of what your dad might call “guy movies” — hyper-macho tales of posturing criminals and thugs, sure, but rendered with an effervescent flair, and usually held together by an incredibly charismatic lead actor.

But what happens when Ritchie doesn’t have a Brad Pitt (Snatch), Jason Statham (Revolver), or Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes)? Well, then you get something like UNCLE, starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. It’s clear what kind of movie it wants to be: a tongue-in-cheek throwback to classic spy movies, anchored by the Odd Couple dynamic of its two leads. There’s just one problem: this star vehicle doesn’t have any stars.

The time is 1963, and Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, a former criminal turned US superspy. He’s in East Berlin to rescue an auto mechanic named Gaby (Ex Machina’s Alicia Vikander), whose father is at the heart of a plot to enrich uranium and build nuclear weapons. While trying to get her over the wall, Solo is interrupted by Illya Kuryakin (Hammer, taking his best Boris Badenov accent for a spin), a Russian spy with the same mission. Eventually the two men are forced by their respective bosses to team up to find Gaby’s father. With neither trusting the other — and the wild card of Gaby’s affections in play — the requisite hijinks ensue.

Don’t worry if you don’t know the TV show; judging from the film, I’m not sure Ritchie or his writing partner did either. But from a production standpoint, the film is beautiful: the costume design evokes the idealized ‘60s perfectly, and the photography is so lush I found myself lost in the hazy glow of Cavill and Hammer’s chiseled visages (I’m joking, but only partly). Ritchie’s films have always had an undeniable, kinetic energy to them, and while the vibe feels a little forced this time around — slapping music on and turning it up to 11 only works the first four times, thank you — there are nevertheless hints of a fun, engaging movie here. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like if it was Clooney’s scowl and charm wrapped up in Solo’s suit, pulling the audience along with sheer charismatic will. Instead…

AGENT: Henry Cavill

ALIAS: Napoleon Solo, Kal-El, Man of Steel, Theseus, The Bechinned Wonder

SKILLS: Devastatingly earnest brow, hulking shoulders, genetically perfected skin laminate

WEAKNESSES: Relatability, accessibility, genetically perfected skin laminate

Henry Cavill’s been a bit of a wildcard. He’s clearly somebody audiences are going to get used to, just from the slate of upcoming DC films alone. The problem there is that he’s playing Superman, a character that’s already pretty boring, in an iteration that adds dour and self-serious to the mix. UNCLE is the best I’ve ever seen him; he summons an ingenious, overwrought American accent and milks it for all it’s worth, and if you squint, the performance almost plays. But there’s still an unshakably inert blandness to his presence. There’s simply no danger when Cavill is on screen, no sense that anything’s at stake. It might make him the perfect kind of presence for a studio to bet on, but it’s not very fun to watch.

AGENT: Armie Hammer

ALIAS: Illya Kuryakin, The Lone Ranger, The Winklevii, The Bechinned Marvel

SKILLS: Ocular intensity, affability, communally agreed-upon status as Next Big Thing™

WEAKNESSES: Accents, low threat level, impossibly good teeth

Hammer is another leading-man-in-waiting that’s never quite popped the way many have expected him to. The confounding thing here is that we have empirical proof he can be fantastic: his dual turn as Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss in The Social Network was a minor masterpiece of smarm, but ever since he’s been stuck in roles that are vanilla to the extreme, whether its The Lone Ranger or Mirror Mirror. Hollywood seems set on turning him into a caricature of a leading man; all perfect blue eyes and dazzling smile. Kuryakin may have a temper problem, sure, but it’s fleeting at best, and I never believed the character was ever in danger of losing real control.

The Man From UNCLE promotional still (WARNER BROS.)

Both Cavill and Hammer are different versions of the same problem, one Ritchie has never had to contend with in quite this way. Whether it’s Downey, Jude Law, Statham — hell, even Gerard Butler — the director has always worked best with actors that seem perched on the edge of instability. It lends a vitality to the proceedings that matches up perfectly with his own, nearly out-of-control sensibilities — but more importantly, it’s a quality almost all of the best stars — the most memorable, the most beloved — have had. In a time when the film industry is relying on the safe, consistent box office of the comic book movie more than ever before, things like personality and voice — whether on the part of writers, directors, or actors — are more vital than ever. Iron Man isn’t huge simply because of Marvel Comics; it’s huge because of the undeniable draw of Robert Downey, Jr.

Some of our best actors seem perched on the edge of instability

Of course, that’s not really the way the game is played, is it? Actors have to struggle out of the straightjacket of typecasting to maintain any kind of diversity in their work — even more so if they want to attain that status of full-fledged movie star — even though that’s the very thing that gives their careers longevity and depth. Brad Pitt is now looked upon as a stalwart, but it wasn’t his golden-boy turns in Troy and Meet Joe Black that made it possible; it was a perfect mix of conventional roles ping-ponged with the weird (12 Monkeys), the horrifying (Se7en), and the outright ill-advised (Fight Club).

The Man From UNCLE likely won’t pull in the kind of box office numbers to warrant the trilogy it’s hoping to start, and I can’t really say that audiences will be missing out on a whole lot. Hopefully it will encourage both of these actors to take some risks (Cavill certainly can’t be hurting for a payday). I’d like to see Hammer in his Se7en, Cavill in his American Beauty. I’d like to see them get the chance to step outside the magazine cover roles they seem to be continually steered toward, and for their directors to stop worrying about turning them into movie stars, and to see what they can really do.

The Man From UNCLE is now playing.