During the Cold War, an American spy (Cavill) and a Russian spy (Hammer) are forced to work together to solve a plot involving illegal development of an atom bomb. In their cooperation they have to protect a girl (Vikander) who proves to be a greater headache for them than they anticipated.
I left the theatre with a smile, but the more I think of the movie the more flaws become apparent. It had some good stuff, it had some bad stuff. It had a glaring flaw, and I’ll dive right into that. The main problem with this movie is that the two male lead characters were miscast. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer play the American and Russian spies, respectively. And while these are both handsome actors, they have no charisma individually and no chemistry together. Cavill is so smooth that he doesn’t stick with you. He’s so smooth that he slides from your brain in a schlwop of oil. And Armie Hammer looks and acts like a robot, like some unfinished prototype man that didn’t receive a character yet.
But the success of the movie largely rests on the chemistry between Cavill and Hammer, and since that fails, the movie itself fails. Which is a pity because other than this flaw the movie has actually quite a lot going for it. I feared that this would happen ever since I saw the trailer, because in there I saw Henry Cavill holding his head at inquisitive angles and imitating an early James Bond, but it felt empty. My first thought after seeing the trailer was that Cavill doesn’t convince me in this role, and my fear was justified.
Guy Ritchie is the veteran director of the movie. Those familiar with his earlier movies such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch. (2000) know his style and what to expect. His movies move fast, rely on a large cast of odd characters with snappy dialogue and frantic editing. He chose the same approach with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The three main characters exchange witty dialogue, try to outdo each other and Ritchie tries to infuse the whole thing with a lot of humor.
I have two more complaints before I end the review by saying that I actually liked the movie, so please bear with me. The humor sometimes falls flat. I chuckled, but I think I was the only one in the theatre to do so. Maybe this loss of levity is also a consequence of the lack of chemistry between Cavill and Hammer. Instead of funny, the characters behave a bit strangely and you are left scratching your head instead of laughing.
The editing also obscures the action a bit. Ritchie uses two techniques in particular that give the impression of excitement but are actually a bit cheap. The first is to divide the screen into comic book snippets and then blend the snippets together again. The second technique is to skip over an important plot twist and then work backwards to show what happened. Especially the second technique is a cheap way to generate tension. It leaves the audience wondering what happened and then a flashback shows what happened. There is no skill behind that, it’s just a cheap trick.
So yes, a flawed movie. But I also liked it. It had a solid plot. Some scenes were shot very well, especially the opening chase scene, which was exciting, comedic and surprising. After the opening chase I was holding a candle for the movie for the rest of the runtime and most of the time I enjoyed what I was seeing. I liked the cold war era setting. In the third act, Hugh Grant suddenly shows up and he finally carried some screen presence and charisma with him. It is a pity he didn’t enter the film earlier.