The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Review: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer’s Action Comedy Is “Dizzying” to Follow, “Not Terribly Intriguing”

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer
(Front-back) HENRY CAVILL as Solo and ARMIE HAMMER as Illya in Warner Bros. Pictures' action adventure "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Daniel Smith

In theaters Friday, Aug. 14

2 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)

It may be mid-August, but there’s still time this summer for another big-screen adaptation of a 1960s TV spy series.

Generating the same amount of excitement and spirited thrills, however, proves to be a true mission impossible.

This project is actually a prequel to the cult British show about the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. So let’s go back now to the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Russia were hardcore enemies. The CIA’s Napoleon Solo (Man of Steel Henry Cavill) and the KGB’s Illya Kuryakin (The Lone Ranger Armie Hammer) want to kill each other. Desperately. In one early chase sequence, Solo ziplines, across the Berlin Wall to elude him. Ah, the symbolism!

After playtime is over, their organization chiefs drop by to reveal the news: The sworn rivals must join forces to stop a secret evil organization from detonating a bomb that could destroy the world. They assume new identities and enlist the help of beautiful East German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), who’s the estranged daughter of a mysterious scientist with answers. Gaby pretends to be the Russian’s fiancée, though she already has a special bond with the American. Or does she?

If you’re not straight on that setup, then good luck trying to keep track of the dizzying — and not terribly intriguing — double-crossings and shifty characters. What a relief when droll spy leader Waverly (Hugh Grant) appears midway through the film. He doesn’t exactly untangle all the exposition, but his winking dialogue delivery is a welcome tonic.

uncle
HENRY CAVILL as Solo and ELIZABETH DEBICKI as Victoria in Warner Bros. Pictures' action adventure "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. Daniel Smith

Admittedly, Hammer’s overcooked Russian dialect is a distraction as well. As is Cavill’s hyper-articulate American patter. Aaaaand ditto for Vikander’s German accent . . . . though thanks to her breakout turn in Ex Machina, this impossibly alluring Swedish actress can still do no wrong. She even looks chic in a mechanic’s uniform. If only she could repair the threesome’s wobbly chemistry!

To his credit, co-writer and director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Snatch) helms the action with a stylish and period-appropriate flair. You almost expect to see Austin Powers sitting in the backseat of one of the cars, baby. Indeed, Ritchie even tones down his usual bone-crunching violent streak in favor of some clever cheekiness. (One criminal accidentally kills himself when the heroes’ backs are turned.) Free tip: During the flick’s many what-the-heck-just-happened?! moments, sit back and reflect on how Ritchie would fare helming a future James Bond installment. This might as well be an unofficial audition reel. 

That is, if he’s not stuck directing a sequel. What’s this at the end about the gang reteaming for another assignment? Uncle!

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