The Man from UNCLE (and no I’m not typing out those stupid extraneous periods, ask Agents of SHIELD about my policy on how acronyms work in the English language) is the best new USA show of the summer.
It’s a perfect drop-in replacement for White Collar, Burn Notice, or Covert Affairs that you put on while you’re cooking stirfry and are moderately entertained even as you miss in total about a third of each episode while the microwave timer is going off or you have to get something out of the freezer in the garage. The characters pleasantly riff off one another, and you’re not paying attention enough to be bothered by slapdash writing that’s just good enough to get the job done.
Of course, The Man from UNCLE isn’t a USA show, and I wasn’t watching it while cutting vegetables, so all of its flaws make the whole exercise fall apart.
First, the characters, since that’s the bright side. Armie Hammer is wonderful as a psychopathic Russian with a heart of gold. Alica Vikander is not given enough to do, but takes little moments like mocking pajama dancing and makes them way more entertaining than they should be. And Henry Cavill should never ever play anything but Neil Caffrey rip-offs from now on. His calm and completely unflappable wryness and perfect comic timing are a far more valuable commodity than a six pack and shoulders. His true talents are being tragically wasted as mopey murdering Superman.
Too bad the script is shit and the direction isn’t much better. The script is so bad that it would be an embarrassment to Austin Powers 3: Yes Mike Myers Has Pictures of Somebody. That’s mostly because half the plot is actually lifted straight from the two Austin Powers films. Now to be fair, those elements (like secret island lairs, doomsday weapons, and Nazi scientists) were lifted straight from terrible old Cold War spy movies.
The difference of course was that Austin Powers was mocking those plot elements while Man From UNCLE brings back those elements with a straight face and no self awareness. Remember Austin invading Dr. Evil’s island compound with an entire division of troops, having a montage of a gun fight, and then all the troops are forgotten so the protagonists can chase the antagonist by themselves and then just miss him getting away in a contrived secret escape that should have been prevented by the island being fucking surrounded in the first place? That exact sequence of events, along with the same plot holes takes place almost verbatim in this movie. And it does it with a straight face.
So by the time there is an actual scene with a baron and his formula one car, the viewer is left wondering whether the screenwriter was in a coma for the last thirty years and has no awareness of how silly the whole affair is. It’s like they made an extremely long episode of Archer, cut out all the jokes having fun with the genre and replaced all the banter with stuff that could still swing a PG-13 rating.
That’s without even getting to the plot holes that render essentially everything on the screen nonsensical. Like when there is an extended car chase all over the dirt roads of a tiny island and the moment it’s done a helicopter from the aircraft carrier they came in on lands. Maybe they could have, you know, just radioed in and said “oi, send the choppa” instead of driving through the mud for five minutes. Or when the villain is trying to escape on a Nazi submarine, cackling “haha you’ll never catch me now” maybe instead of having the protagonists freaking out, maybe, just maybe, they could realize that the combined American, British, and Soviet fleets could kind of find a twenty year old German U-Boat in the middle of the Mediterranean before lunch. The entire plot is composed of events like this that can’t survive contact with three brain cells operating at the same time.
Finally, I want to take a very special paragraph to lambast the director for his insultingly idiotic technique of blatantly cutting things to make a scene more confusing and then flashing back forty-five seconds later to fill in the gaps after the scene is resolved. For example, inexplicably only showing one side of a conversation so that the reactions on the other side don’t make any sense. And then as soon as the scene finishes, flashing back and showing you the missing bits as if you’re filming the end of the fucking Usual Suspects. It’s not clever. It does not add suspense. It is just treating your audience like morons.
Enjoy this movie when it comes on USA next summer while you’re cooking dinner. Otherwise don’t bother paying for it.