Here’s a surprise: “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is a tonic for the late-summer dog days — an effervescent throwback to old-school spy thrillers like the original Bond films and the TV show that ran on NBC from 1964 to 1968. No major cities are destroyed. No airplanes or skyscrapers are dangled from. There’s a bomb, but it’s quaintly beside the point. As directed by Guy Ritchie in what is, for him, energy-saving mode, “Man” is a celebration of a time when secret agents dressed impeccably, bantered with style, and had exceptionally cool toys. That the movie is almost instantly forgettable is part of the pleasure.
It’s a perverse move, of course, to create a big-screen version of a show that has been off the air for almost 50 years. (Personally speaking, the original “U.N.C.L.E.” passed under my radar screen even as I recall my older sister’s slavish teen-girl worship of costar David McCallum.) In a way, though, that allows the creators to start from scratch.
After a droll opening sequence in which dapper American art thief turned spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) extracts defector Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from 1963 East Berlin while glowering Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) tries to stop them, Ritchie’s film hunkers down in Rome for an extended stay. There’s an ex-Nazi sadist (Sylvester Groth) who happens to be Gaby’s uncle, and a chic Italian husband-and-wife team (Luca Calvani and Elizabeth Debicki) who, for reasons that are never entirely clear, want to start World War III. To stop them, Solo and Kuryakin have to put aside their Cold War differences and work along with Gaby as a team. Every so often, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant, and Misha Kuznetsov look in as their various CIA/MI5/KGB minders.
All of which is a sop to the idea that movies need plots, since “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is more than content to hang around its European hot spots ogling the hotel lobbies, the race cars, the cut of the suits, the jewelry dripping from the women, the women drooping from the beds. It’s all as gleefully chauvinistic as you’d expect from Ritchie (“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”), not to mention a film that fetishizes Carnaby Street-era espionage, but Vikander (“Ex Machina”) does get to play as rough as the boys and Debicki (she was Jordan Baker in “The Great Gatsby”) pulls off a fair impression of Audrey Hepburn with the innocence bleached out.
There remains the matter of Cavill, a Brit, playing an American while Hammer, an American, plays a Russian. This is relevant only because Cavill, who was convincing enough as Superman in “Man of Steel,” has an accent that comes down somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and is, in general, about as American as early Pierce Brosnan, which is not very. Hammer (who will always be the Winklevi, from “The Social Network,” to some of us), gets more topspin on his lines as the dour, strait-laced Kuryakin, and Daniel Pemberton’s score helps him out by punching up his reactions with comic-melodramatic music stings. But the chemistry between Solo and Kuryakin never completely jells, even when the script is playing up the gay subtext with more friskiness than usual. (How many scenes can you have in public men’s rooms, anyway?)
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” coasts along on style and Ritchie’s love for the era’s cinematic ephemera — the subtitles in a big yellow font that hearkens back to the old “Batman” TV series, the “mod” harpsichord plinks on the soundtrack. (The song choices are inspired, too: Nina Simone and Louis Prima and Solomon Burke, oh my.) Every now and then, the movie takes a nearly ruinous turn for the serious, as when the Nazi uncle gives his backstory and suddenly the screen’s awash in needlessly violent World War II footage. You can tell the climactic chase scene, involving jeeps and ATVs and motorcycles, doesn’t excite the director very much, either; it feels dutiful and dull.
But give Ritchie an island-assault sequence that requires the use of split-screen — split-screen that multiplies into a nearly geometric progression of cross-hatched lines and boxes and still manages to move the action forward — and he and we are happy campers. He gets comic mileage out of focal planes, too: Solo obliviously eating a sandwich in the foreground, say, while Kuryakin goes down in flames in the background. Ritchie’s movies have always suffered from a coldness around the heart, but it’s August and it’s hot and we could all use a little A/C. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” ends with the promise of a sequel, but, really, who cares? This one’s cool enough to do the trick.