The original “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” television series ran from 1964 to 1968 on NBC. I have only a vague memory of watching some of it during rebroadcasts in the 1970s. I often get it confused with actor David McCallum’s short-lived 1975-76 series “The Invisible Man“ – which I am old enough to have watched in its original run – and as result, since on that show McCallum frequently removed the latex mask covering his invisible face, for a long time I mistakenly believed that McCallum had starred on that other 1960s TV espionage series “Mission: Impossible,” in which masks play such an indelible part. More fool me. All of this serves to point out that I am absolutely no expert in the source material of this new movie by British director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels). All I can judge is what I saw on this particular screen at this particular time.
The verdict? It’s a hell of a lot of fun, if completely vacuous. Set during the 1960s – shortly after the building of the Berlin Wall – the film stars Henry Cavill (our modern-day Superman) as CIA agent Napoleon Solo; Armie Hammer (our modern-day Lone Ranger) as KGB agent Ilya (spelled, for some reason, as “Illya” in the credits) Kuryakin; and Alicia Vikander (our modern-day replacement) as Gaby Teller, daughter of a missing Nazi scientist. Forced to work together on a joint American-Soviet operation, the men prance and strut their stuff with great panache, while Vikander mostly just sits around and looks pretty. That’s Hollywood. But what a good time we have on our way to nothing. Ritchie is in flamboyant high spirits here, starting with an opening sequence that will have you on the edge of your seat: he certainly knows how to stage a car chase. Sometimes his editing style overwhelms any sense of narrative coherence – as if, by confusing us, he hopes to hide the fact that he didn’t stage everything as well as that opening – but for the most part the modish titles and split screens, evocative of the era of the story, serve as pleasingly entertaining devices. There’s not a lot of there, there, but emptiness has rarely gone down so easily.