Back in the 90s it was popular for movie studios to adapt TV shows from the 60s into big budget features. Kind of like how it’s popular to adapt comic books into big budget features now. Apparently the makers of The Man From UNCLE didn’t get the memo that the 90s are over though, because they’ve adapted one of the few untouched shows of the era, one about an American secret agent (Henry Cavill) and a Soviet secret agent (Armie Hammer) having to team up, even though it’s 2015. Usually when these things get adapted their stories are brought into modern times, but UNCLE has a concept so specific to its era that it was necessary to keep things back in the 60s and make a period piece. Given the dated nature of the source material and the late to the party release of the adaptation, is The Man From UNCLE an irrelevant property that should have been left in the past?
Not exactly. For one thing, director Guy Ritchie is able to utilize the 60s setting to make one of the most aesthetically slick, pleasant to look at action movies that’s come out in a while. Thanks to the costuming, to the affectations of the actors, and to all of the split-screen action choreography that gets put on display, UNCLE is chalk full of vintage cool. It’s hard to imagine a version of the film set in modern times being as visually dense or having nearly as much swagger—and it’s hard to imagine Cavill being so slick as the roguish American agent if he wasn’t always wearing an impeccable 60s suit, or Hammer being as affectively masculine as the steaming kettle Soviet agent if he didn’t have the era’s social cues and gender norms to lean into. The Man From UNCLE is a gorgeous movie full of great acting, and the fact that it’s swimming in the world of the 60s only accentuates that.
The problem with the film is that, even though its actors are surrounded by gorgeous things, and even though they’re all charming and gorgeous themselves, they’re never given anything to do other than typical spy movie stuff that you’ve already seen play out a million times before. Despite the fact that this thing is full of fighting and espionage and world-ending stakes, its most memorable scene is one in which Alicia Vikander’s plucky femme fatale puts on a pair of sunglasses and dances in her pajamas. That girl is endlessly charming, and the camera loves her. With The Man From UNCLE, Ritchie might have made the most breezy, attractive, completely forgettable movie in recent memory. It will enchant you while it’s around, and then it will be completely forgotten the moment it’s gone, like a whiff of designer perfume farted out into a strong breeze.