Watching “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is like reading a coffee-table book or a retro fashion mag comprised solely of pictures showing cosmopolitan ’60s style: It’s suave, pretty and utterly without substance.
There’s an art to being genuinely stylish without seeming too arch or condescending. Filmmaker Guy Ritchie has had trouble grasping that concept in the past (“Sherlock Holmes” etc.), but he finally finds the right balance in this adaptation of the popular ’60s TV series.
Put another way, the picture plays as something more than a commercial for mod wardrobes — crisp suits and oversized sunglasses, big boots and miniskirts — while skimming quite contentedly along the surface of actual meaning.
Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer inhabit the roles of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, originated by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. They’re slick, handsome spies — Cavill’s Napoleon might have been Cary Grant’s long lost cousin, while Hammer’s Kuryakin seethes with constant rage.
They’re swept up in a plot to keep some bad rich guys from developing a nuclear weapon, alongside the tough-as-nails Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an East German mechanic whose estranged father and uncle are involved in the illicit plans.
None of this matters in the slightest, of course. The characters don’t register as humans: They’re empty, fetching vessels that look great engaged in an old-school chase along the darkened East Berlin streets, or while taking part in some glossy subterfuge amid the high-society goings-on at a race.
Ritchie fills every frame with rich period detail; hardly a moment is bereft of the bright colors and smooth jazz sensibilities of spy pictures from the time. This isn’t just set in 1963 — it feels like it.
At his worst, the filmmaker has been known to indulge in kinetic pyrotechnics at the expense of anything resemble classically-oriented cinema. Some of his movies are so wound-up, so energized, that you want to inject them with a serious dose of depressants.
This one stays on the level, utterly committed to being a humorous lark. There are setpieces that cross the border between mildly amusing and downright hilarious, most notably a sequence involving a speed boat chase and an impromptu picnic.
Ritchie’s grinning at us the whole time, and for once it feels good to grin right back.