‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ and Hollywood’s Boring White Guy Problem

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Our common memory of Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown these days is as a place marker, the end of our collective honeymoon with the Jerry Maguire filmmaker, a movie greeted with hoots from critics and middling box office that became the case study for an exceedingly controversial cinematic trope. But when Elizabethtown hit theaters, the only real sign of trouble was a high-profile recasting; Crowe had originally set Ashton Kutcher for the leading role of a suicidal shoe designer, only to replace him in rehearsals with Orlando Bloom. Coming out of the theater after soaking up Bloom’s bland, stilted, studied performance, all this viewer could think was: These guys were their two best options?

I had a similar thought while watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie’s new big-screen adaptation of the ‘60s spy show. To be clear: stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are fine. They’re fine. They’re maddeningly, generically fine. They both put across their characters, hit their marks, get some laughs, and wear the shit outta some suits. They generate chemistry with their female leads, though to be fair, all evidence indicates that Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) could generate chemistry with an upright vacuum. Cavill and Hammer get the job done — but there’s nothing distinctive in their performances, and frankly, nothing that couldn’t have been done by Jai Courtney or Aaron Taylor-Johnson or Taylor Kitsch or Chris Pine or any of the other (sorry to say it) bland white guys Hollywood keeps trying to convince us are movie stars.

None of which particularly detracts from U.N.C.L.E., a jazzy, frisky, good-natured spy romp with the sense not to take itself too seriously. As in the original series, it concerns an American spy (Cavill) and his Russian counterpart (Hammer), who are reluctantly teamed in their countries’ mutual interests; here, that interest is centered on Gaby (Vikander), the German daughter of a former Nazi scientist who may be helping rogue forces develop a nuclear device. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the plot; as in the Bond movies that heavily influenced both iterations, the emphasis is less on story than style, with an abundance of witty repartee, double entendres, wild stunts, knockout costumes, and femmes fatale.

Stylistically, the picture offers up a blank slate to director Ritchie; there’s not really a playbook in place for him to work or divert from, since the original series fluctuated wildly, from season to season, between straight Bond knock-off (with the participation of Ian Fleming) and Batman-chasing camp. Some of Ritchie’s trademarks are in place: the stylized fistfights and tiny time shifts of his Sherlock Holmes franchise, or the snappy back-and-forth of early efforts like Snatch. But if any particular influence is felt in U.N.C.L.E., it’s that of Steven Soderbergh, who was attached to the project for a couple of years, before departing over budget issues in 2011.

The script Soderbergh developed with Scott Z. Burns (who penned his Contagion, Side Effects, and The Informant!) was apparently jettisoned — Ritchie and producer Lionel Wigram share credit — but the resulting movie feels even more indebted to Soderbergh’s style than Magic Mike XXL . From the throwback Warner Brothers logo that opens it to the idiosyncratic sound design to the unorthodox action sequences to a jaunty score filled with echoes of David Holmes, U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t just feel like a movie Soderbergh was briefly attached to; it feels like a movie whose key pre-production element was two weeks locked in a room with the Ocean’s movies on a loop.

Not that this a bad thing! (Hell, if Soderbergh’s not gonna make Soderbergh movies anymore, somebody should.) But the clear stylistic debt also keeps one facet of that film-that-never-was clanging in the memory of anyone who was paying attention to it: the Soderbergh version had (unsurprisingly) George Clooney slotted into the role of Napoleon Solo. And Henry Cavill is a decent enough charming rogue spy, until you go comparing him to George Clooney — because George Clooney has that thing, that indescribable, intangible, undeniable movie star thing, and Cavill (for all of his good looks and likability) doesn’t. Nor does Hammer, or Kitsch, or any of the rest of them.

Of course, you can argue that Clooney’s had 22 more years of living and acting to accumulate that movie star thing, and you’d be right, and that’s part of the problem too. There are plenty of flaws in the arguments posited by Terrence Rafferty in the much-discussed recent Atlantic article on “the decline of the American actor” (Cavill’s British, to begin with, and he has plenty of fellow countrymen equally short on star quality), but he’s right in pinpointing a lack of training and stage experience as a culprit in the oddly lightweight quality of so many modern thespians. The fact of the matter is, when Ritchie runs down the life of crime and thievery and spying that Napoleon Solo has led, you simply don’t buy it as a backstory for Cavill the way you would with Clooney, or someone of commensurate age and experience; Cavill seems like a kid play-acting, a really promising college actor doing a pretty good Willy Loman, but still not quite selling it.

But this is the trouble with trying to court the lucrative under-30 demo with a film adaptation of a TV show their grandparents watched: you apparently have to attach hot young actors to lure young audiences, since the brand that got the movie made is meaningless to that most desirable of moviegoer. (This is, oddly, the second time in recent memory Hammer’s been in this spot.) So the multiplexes are being handed over to leading men who aren’t ready for prime time, yet are asked to carry major motion pictures. It doesn’t really matter with a lightweight, actor-proof contraption like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. But when these guys have to shoulder something heavy, they may not prove up to the task.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is out Friday.