“The Man From U.N.C.L.E” opens Friday at Point, Palace and Star Cinemas. PG-13, 1:56, two and a half stars out of four.
You don’t want to watch “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” you want to pore over it like it was a glossy catalog. Instead of updating the spy TV show to a modern era, Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes”) positively wallows in ’60s European style — the cars, the dresses, the music and especially the suits. There’s a rather witty scene with the two heroes arguing over which purse their female accomplice should wear with each outfit, and you think yeah, this could be the entire movie: “The Spy Who Loved To Tell Me What Not To Wear.”
“U.N.C.L.E.” coasts agreeably enough on its retro style, because it doesn’t have much else to go on; Ritchie is almost willfully disinterested in the plot and characters of his own movie. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, both summa cum laude graduates from Lank Thompson’s “I’m A Handsome Actor” course, play Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, Cold War opponents forced to work together against a common enemy. (The opening credits use headlines to explain to the young’uns what the Cold War was, just in case fortyish critics in the audience didn’t already feel old.)
Ritchie’s screenplay takes the most liberties with the two main characters; this Solo is a former master thief who got blackballed into the CIA to avoid prison, while Kuryakin is a behemoth Russian assassin with rage issues. The two spies are tasked with their superiors with tracking down a missing German who used to be Hitler’s favorite rocket scientists, and who may have fallen in with some lingering Nazi types. Their lead is an East German woman, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander of “Ex Machina”) who happens to be the scientist’s daughter.
The movie jets from Berlin to Rome to Naples — well, maybe “jets” isn’t the word here. It saunters from Berlin to Rome to Naples, with Solo and Kuryakin trading gibes, rubbing elbows with Europe’s hoi polloi, and occasionally working in a little espionage if there’s time. The movie doesn’t care too much about its plot, and doesn’t really expect us to either — at one point, Solo stops in the middle of a boat chase to make himself a leisurely snack.
Cavill and Hammer are fine but unmemorable, and one wonders if Ritchie locked them into this new franchise because he learned his lesson about Robert Downey Jr., now probably too expensive for a third “Sherlock Holmes” movie. Vikander is the real prize, giving the traditional “girl” role an enigmatic energy that keeps drawing your eye away from those two handsome lunkheads. Hugh Grant appears late (probably too late) in the film as the U.N.C.L.E. spymaster Waverly, and will probably get more screen time in the sequel.
Overall, “U.N.C.L.E.” is passable entertainment, especially if you let your mind wander away from the characters and the story and appreciate Joanna Johnston’s amazing costumes or Daniel Pemberton’s sprightly retro score. But it’s hard to recommend heartily when “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” is literally playing just down the hall at your local multiplex.