After Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels put Guy Ritchie on the map, his follow up film Snatch solidified his reputation as "that British Gangster films guy", the inter-connected structure present in both making his films stand out while quickly becoming something of a director trademark. So imagine my surprise when the Ritchie directed The Man from UNCLE contains one of the most straightforward plots I've seen this year, which as a Cold War era spy film would have benefited greatly from a bit of the unique convolution that Guy Ritchie is most well known for.
Set in 1963, The Man from UNCLE follows American CIA agent Napoleon Solo and Russian KGB agent Illya Kuryakin as they attempt to stop the wealthy, Nazi associated Vinciguerra family from building a private nuclear weapon. To do so, they need the help of German engineer Gabby Teller, whose uncle works for a shipping company owned by the Vinciguerra's.
On it's own, the idea of a spy film having a simple plot isn't an issue - the problem is that the few moments of intricacy that the film does provide seem forced, almost as if someone pointed out that The Man from UNCLE was too simple halfway through production. There are multiple scenes that leave out important information in order to set up a dramatic reveal for later, but the information that is left out would have been more useful to the film if the audiences had of known it - in one case, what could have been a tense scene where the audience know something that the characters don't is instead played as a cheap twist at the end, wasting the potential suspense that would have made the scene in question significantly more interesting. The cynic in me says that this is The Man of UNCLE trying to appear smarter than it is, and I'm struggling to see a counter argument - one particularly self-satisfied example of this has the film "flashing back" to moments that have happened within the last minute or so, as if the audience have already forgotten what they literally just saw.
This might not bother you as much as it bothered me in fairness, as for the most part The Man from UNCLE is really nothing more than a buddy movie, the main focus being on the characters involved rather than on the story itself. The dynamic that Napoleon and Illya share is one you've seen before, but it's still fairly entertaining here thanks to some good dialogue. I'm not overly fond of Henry Cavill's Napoleon, who aimed for suave and sophisticated but landed on smug and obnoxious, but Armie Hammer's Illya quickly becomes more than the initially stereotypical Russian he starts off as. It's played mostly for laughed, but the overtly emotional and quick to anger KGB agent quickly became my favourite character in the film, despite The Man from UNCLE forcing him to play second fiddle to the sickeningly superior Napoleon Solo.
But the film's biggest weakness (aside from completely wasting Alicia Vikander, who blew my mind in Ex Machina but is entirely forgettable here) is how meandering it's middle section is. I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't drawn in by the opening, a tense but amusing cat and mouse chase through the streets of Berlin that introduces us to the main characters, but as soon as this ends the film begins to sag. It must be a good half hour or so before the next memorable scene occurs, the minutes previous to that being forgotten even as you watch, completely lacking the style of the opening sequence while refusing to provide any substance. There is something of a redemption as the film picks up again in preparation for it's finale, but this is marred by the aforementioned façade of cleverness that the film presents whenever it realises that it's plot is actually rather dull.
I can't say that I'm dying to see a follow up to The Man from UNCLE, but at the same time I do think that with a stronger plot and a director who knows action (some of the action sequences are borderline unbearable) this could be a franchise worth keeping up with, based purely on the strength of the Cold War era setting and Armie Hammer's Illya, who once again is the best part of the movie. Because in it's best moments, The Man from UNCLE is a slick and stylish spy thriller that gets a lot of mileage out of the dynamic it's co-leads share - but unfortunately, more often than not it's self satisfied and slow, relying on inconsistent humour to make up for a baffling lack of action while failing to realise that it isn't as smart as it thinks it is. The Man from UNCLE isn't an awful film, but it isn't a good one either despite its potential, and comes in at a distant second when compared to the other, significantly better film based on a late 60's spy TV show released this summer.