The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Ritchie breathes new life into classic spy series

Guy Ritchie has a lot to offer any film he directs.

The inventive British director behind such foreign standouts as “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” made a spectacular transition to American theaters by teaming with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law for a pair of films based on the Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

His crisp dialogue and stunning visual style reinvigorated a tired, outdated mystery genre and helped escalate Downey’s rise to mega-stardom following “Iron Man.”

Ritchie’s latest film follows a similar path, just with less overall success.

Revived from the 1970s television show of the same name, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” pits two lesser known actors — Henry Cavill of “Man of Steel” and Armie Hammer of “The Lone Ranger” and “The Social Network — as rival American and Russian spies, respectively, tasked with coming together to stop an international arms dealer from securing and selling a nuclear weapon.

The acting in “U.N.C.L.E.” is a mixed bag, with Cavill standing out as the suave American version of James Bond. While not quite on the same level as Tom Cruise as an action star, Cavill exudes just the right amount of bravado to dominate but not overwhelm the film in true spy fashion. Hammer, on the other hand, suffocates every second he appears on scene with an overdone, stereotypical Russian accent not even worthy of amateur theatrical performances of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Cavill fits like a glove, while Hammer is the sore thumb dragging the whole film down.

Ritchie’s film features some of the year’s best cinematography and editing as any number of individual frames of “U.N.C.L.E.” could be lifted straight out of the film and hung on a wall like a painting, most notably the soon-to-be-iconic shot of Cavill largely obscured in darkness after firing his pistol, but just enough in the light to be drenched in the shadows of the spy world. Shots like this — and sequences like the comic book-esque cutting of the island raid toward the end of the film — give “U.N.C.L.E.” the right look and feel of a home run spy movie, though the content doesn’t quite sustain.

The plot gets unnecessarily clunky in the middle — as is the case with most origin story films — and lacks the requisite number of action sequences necessary to break up all the character development in the film. The inability of Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram to balance the plot for audiences and Hammer’s horribly ineffectual performance limits “U.N.C.L.E.” to good, not great status in the spy genre.

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