Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: We’re dusting off a Watch This tradition and looking back on unsung summer blockbusters—the big movies that opened to critical scorn or audience indifference during the warmer weeks, but are better than their reputations (or tepid box office) suggest.
Equal parts Mission: Impossible film and James Bond movie, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had all the makings of a summer box-office success story. But timing is everything, and someone in their infinite wisdom decided to sandwich the men from U.N.C.L.E. in between an actual Mission: Impossible film and an actual James Bond movie. Just two weeks after Rogue Nation debuted with a $55 million weekend and three months before Spectre would open to $70.4 million, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. crawled out of its first few days with just $13.4 million. There was no coming back from that kind of negative narrative, and U.N.C.L.E. left theaters with a whimper, never to join the ranks of the spy franchises it outclassed and outwitted that year.
Based on the 1960s NBC drama of the same name, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as CIA agent Solo and KGB agent Illya, respectively. At the height of the Cold War, the two spies are asked to work together and—with the help of a German mechanic (Alicia Vikander)—stop a wealthy Nazi sympathizer (Elizabeth Debicki) from arming a nuclear weapon. With a budget of $75 million, the film isn’t light on expensive action sequences, but where it surpasses its contemporaries is its sense of humor. Harkening back to the Bond films of the era in which it’s set, U.N.C.L.E. isn’t afraid to have fun while blowing things up. A boat chase unfolds in the background as Solo pauses for a snack; Illya and Solo diplomatically debate what to do with a captured asset in the foreground while the asset accidentally (and silently) fries in an electric chair behind them; and Debicki, as the big bad, commands the screen with authoritarian presence, at one point even silencing the soundtrack with the lift of a finger.
All four stars are more charming than they’ve ever been, especially Cavill, who was mostly known as a stiff Superman in 2013’s Man Of Steel. But much of the film’s levity can be attributed to Guy Ritchie. The writer-director made a name for himself with crime capers that are—for better or worse—unmistakably Guy Ritchie, which is why it raised a few eyebrows when he signed on to direct someone else’s words for the first time in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. But Ritchie and star Robert Downey Jr. ultimately made for an enjoyable pairing and the film and its 2011 sequel are fun, if somewhat hollow. Richie clearly had similar franchise hopes when he saddled up to write, direct, and produce The Man From U.N.C.L.E.—a film that desperately cries out for a sequel. In the final scene, Hugh Grant shows up as an intelligence agency suit and informs the trio of heroes that they’ll now be operating as an ongoing task force under the code name U.N.C.L.E. In effect, the entire movie is a pilot for a series that didn’t happen.
Warner Bros. had originally set U.N.C.L.E. to debut on MLK Day weekend, pitting it against The Wedding Ringer and Paddington. Its closest genre competition would have been Taken 3 in its second week of release. Ultimately, American Sniper won that weekend, but perhaps there was a world in which U.N.C.L.E. placed a strong second and we’d now all be eagerly awaiting our fifth annual Cavill-Hammer adventure. Instead, U.N.C.L.E. was pushed to August and flopped at the end of a competitive summer. But hey, at least that freed Cavill to play the villain in Mission: Impossible—Fallout. Ritchie, on the other hand, moved on to another failed franchise attempt and to Disney’s Aladdin.