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  1. Life & Culture

Review: 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.' has style but lacks substance

This is not your father's U.N.C.L.E.

Stylish to a fault and straying from the source, Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. revives a 1960s television hit for the short attention spans of today's youth-skewing movie audience.

Viewers aren't as likely to cherish Ritchie's movie a half-century from now, as fans have since the swinging '60s when secret agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin beamed into our homes. Riding the wake of James Bond (also dreamed up by Ian Fleming), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was neck-and-cowl with Batman as one of the coolest shows on TV.

Set in 1963 (a year before the series' debut), Ritchie's movie is much more kinetic than NBC allowed then, more overtly sexual. Only character names are familiar; the U.N.C.L.E. code name isn't even heard until the fadeout, and their nemesis T.H.R.U.S.H. never mentioned.

Solo, suavely played by Henry Cavill, is given a history of art larceny explaining how he got into the CIA to learn all those nifty spy tricks. We knew Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, with a Boris Badenov accent) was previously a KGB agent, but his bulk and Hulk temper are new. Each possesses a superb fashion sense; the mannequins from U.N.C.L.E.

At first, they're Cold War enemies, in an extended car and foot chase through East Berlin, although at an unusually halting pace. It's the first indication of Ritchie's strategy here: Rather than filling the screen with action as usual in these affairs, he may place it in the background, off screen or employ odd sound effects.

The best example of Ritchie's plan working: a fiery boat chase, revenge and rescue sequence, while in the foreground Solo sips chianti in a pickup truck, and the Italian ballad Che Vuole Questa Musica Stasera on the radio is all we hear.

Solo and Kuryakin are pressed into a partnership by their respective agencies, who know a nefarious third party is attempting to build a nuclear bomb. Their assignment involves — but in the convoluted screenplay is not limited to — springing the daughter (Alicia Vikander) of a scientist out of East Berlin, and finding her father, a former Nazi. Plenty of close calls, zipline escapes and electro-torture to derive from that setup, wrapped in Oliver Scholl's exquisite production design.

Cavill's clipped cadence and effortless womanizing are a nice nod to Robert Vaughn's original Solo, but David McCallum's cerebral Kuryakin (not to mention his Beatle haircut) was more interesting than Hammer. Their chemistry consists of snarky nicknames and a few vaguely homoerotic entendres, like a scene in which the two spies bicker in a boutique, or a top-bottom joke while cracking a safe.

But the biggest difference between Ritchie's take on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the original: In the '60s, two movies — The Vatican Affair and The Spy with My Face — were culled from TV episodes and released in theaters.

Don't bet on the 21st century model matching that.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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