Fear not for August. Though the month’s status as the dumping ground for less-than summer movies is still intact—”fantastic” is such a risky word to put right in the title!—it is still possible for something to surprise and entertain, to defy its assumed role as a late-season dud. The new 1960s-set spy comedy The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has an inauspicious backstory—most notably a tortured casting process that started with George Clooney, moved to Tom Cruise, and ended withHenry Cavill—and is based on a 50-year-old television series that not that many people remember. By all measures it should be among the most forgotten of summer fare, limply marketed and hamstrung by a lack of movie-star moxie. But instead it manages, through the pluck of its cast and its director, Guy Ritchie, to entertain in a fizzy, offbeat kind of a way. It’s a merry jaunt with a refreshingly low body count (until the end, at least) that deserves more of an audience than it’s probably going to get.
At first glance, Man from U.N.C.L.E. would seem to suffer from a dearth of star power. Cavill may be Superman, but he hasn’t done much else. His U.N.C.L.E. co-star, Armie Hammer, had good chemistry with himself in The Social Network (he played twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss), but he was poorly served in later films like J. Edgar and The Lone Ranger and his star moment seemed to pass. So the two of them leading a ring-a-ding summer spy romp initially seems like a strange premise. And yet it works, better, even, than it might have with Clooney, or Cruise, or any of the myriad other big names once loosely attached to the movie. Cavill and Hammer both act like they have something to prove—rather than coasting on pre-packaged charm, they (Cavill especially) really go for it, creating something both slick and silly in the process. They’re fun to watch, because they’re game and committed, and because, with their lowered Q scores, they can slip right into the context of the movie. We’re not watching George Clooney running around doing stuff, we’re watching Napoleon Solo.