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The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: These spies don’t fly

Given his penchant for flash and panache, filmmaker Guy Ritchie would seem ideally suited to directing a big-screen version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – more, even, than he was for the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films.

This, however, does not turn out to be the case. In the series, which ran 1964-’68 on NBC, each episode had “Affair” in the title, and the new film could be labeled “The Curiously Flat Affair.” It’s got style to spare, but even in the wake of Kingsman: The Secret Service and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, and preceding the next Bond film (Spectre, due in November), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a dire, witless disappointment. Forget about a franchise.

In the series, itself inspired by the Bond films, “U.N.C.L.E.” stood for “United Network Command for Law and Enforcement,” but it’s not referenced here. Instead, this is the origin story of how American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) first joined forces.

The ‘60s setting allows Ritchie to wallow in retro-kitsch, replete with glamorous costumes and cheeky Cold War shenanigans, yet it’s a very bumpy ride, with flaccid attempts at self-parody and action scenes that are, at best, competent.

Cavill (doing a passable impression of Robert Vaughn, the original Solo) and Hammer are strapping but otherwise unremarkable, although they look good in their outfits – as do Alicia Vikander (good girl) and Elizabeth Debecki (bad girl). This makes two failed franchises in a row for Hammer, who floundered in The Lone Ranger (2013), and although Cavill’s bow as Superman in Man of Steel (2013) was successful enough to yield next year’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s unlikely he – or anyone else, for that matter – will be reprising Napoleon Solo.

The mostly-witless screenplay, by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, overflows with exposition right up to the very end – in some instances spouted by Hugh Grant, wisely kidding the material as British agent Mr. Waverly (the old Leo G. Carroll role) and by Jared Harris, sporting a gravelly pseudo-American accent as Solo’s boss at the CIA. One-liners and rejoinders are followed by pregnant pauses, awaiting audience laughs that never come, and a bizarre soundtrack includes throaty ‘60s ballads and faux-spaghetti-Western music, with occasional cues from Jerry Goldsmith’s original series score.

Instead of going over the top, as was evidently Ritchie’s intent, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. instead collapses in a heap. !

American Ultra: The stoner awakens

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) lives in a dead-end West Virginia town where he works at a local convenience store. Although prone to panic attacks, Mike generally enjoys himself. He loves drawing comic books, he loves getting high, and he loves his like-minded girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).

Mike Howell, however, isn’t Mike Howell at all – he’s a deep-cover CIA operative who is “activated” when the Agency decides to eliminate all trace of the program.

When considering American Ultra, a late entry in the summer movie sweepstakes directed by Nima Nourizadeh and written by Max Landis (son of John), think “The Bourne Identity with bong hits.”

More messy than inspired, American Ultra really doesn’t work. It’s a one-joke premise, (over-)stretched to feature length, with an uneasy mash-up of lowbrow comedy and blood-splattered violence. Yet this loose-limbed, ramshackle farce kills time easily enough – almost as easily as Mike Howell does. Jesse Eisenberg, action hero? Not quite, but he’s not bad, and the film has its laughs.

Sporting a shaggy stoner’s mane, Eisenberg and Stewart, a winning screen couple in 2009’s Adventureland (a better film than this), have a comfortable rapport here, and those who don’t care for either actor may cull some vicarious pleasure in watching them battered and bloodied throughout. The film also takes an extremely dim view of the CIA, which is par for the course in a film like this.

A friendly cast includes Connie Britton, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo, Tony Hale, Walton Goggins and Topher Grace, who steals the show as the prototypical smug, odious government slime who lets others do his dirty work while he hogs the credit. Needless to say, he fully and richly deserves what’s coming to him – and it ain’t pretty. !

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92 (92.3 FM). Copyright 2015, Mark Burger

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