This is not an unbiased review. When I first heard Guy Ritchie was bringing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. to the big screen, I flashed back to the days of black & white TV and play-acting as super-spies. I recalled the opening credits, the music, the best scenes of that TV program long-ago and much-beloved by a fanatical few.
The movie starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer premiered this past weekend and from the near-catastrophic box office estimates, it clearly dominated only a few audience segments—people who spent the day in the theater because their AC was out at home, people who grabbed a ticket for whatever movie was about to begin because they were hiding from mall security and then, well, …me and the teenage daughter I dragged along.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a television series that premiered in 1964 and ran three and a half seasons. It was super-suave secret agents saving the world in style, once a week. U.N.C.L.E was the global top-secret agency that handled threats bigger than any one nation could face (trivia fact #1: Stan Lee says U.N.C.L.E. inspired him to create S.H.I.E.L.D.). The “man” from the title was Napoleon Solo, America’s top agent played by Robert Vaughn. (trivia fact #2: Solo was created by Ian Fleming). His partner was Ilya Kuryakin, Russia’s top agent played by David McCallum. Solo was always dashing, in a perfect suit, trading quips with the enemy at a posh cocktail party. Ilya was a bit rougher, often doing the dirty work out in a cave somewhere with a radio, binoculars and a gun. Solo flirted with every woman, Kuryakin was a little uncomfortable around women. The bad guy was either a millionaire with some agenda, a former Nazi or part of the secret evil organization THRUSH which is somewhere between SPECTRE and KAOS on the Diabolical Scale.(sometimes it was a millionaire Nazi THRUSH agent). Every week some poor innocent bystander was drawn into their complex plan to trap the bad guy—this was supposed to make the audience relate better to the show because Solo and Kurayakin never broke their super-suave, super-cool characters. There was no background story to these characters, no lives outside the U.N.C.L.E. agency (trivia fact #3: producers didn’t intend to explain the acronym until the U.N. objected that people would think it was their secret spy organization), no personal vendettas or family anguish, they were always cool and collected. With a little Hitchcock-style humor. Then later, came the spin-off Girl From U.N.C.L.E.
And now the movie
This isn’t the U.N.C.L.E described above… it’s the prequel, the origin story. Guy Ritchie clearly loved the source material because he honors all the old tropes—the super-suave-itude, the 60’s style, the innocent bystander used as bait, the millionaire Nazi THRUSH bad guy (but THRUSH isn’t mentioned by name), and more.
OK, that’s cool, the premise being that the two top agents from opposing countries would probably have gone against each other in the past and might actually hate each other. Now they have to be partners. They learn to cooperate instead of compete, begrudgingly. Some terrific humor in this.
It’s a bit overacted, and especially Armie Hammer’s Russian accent is barely a step above Rocky & Bullwinkle (David McCallum’s wasn’t much better in the original). Maybe their back-stories as human beings seemed a bit forced, even unnecessary. There’s been criticism that the actors don’t show a lot of emotional range, but that was a big part of the schtick from the series– this is barely about character and it’s all about style. On that, Guy Ritchie delivers with the locations, the music, the clothes, the cars, everything.
At heart, it’s a fun film. It’s got the 60s stylishness, and the Cold War spy vibe, some good laughs and in the last 25 minutes it really captures the spirit of the TV show as everything comes together, our heroes charge into battle and U.N.C.L.E. is born. In one last homage to the series, the end frame freezes as music sweeps in just as the old series did– with Solo, Kuryakin and even the Girl From Uncle now a team.
Remember the teenage daughter I dragged along? She’s my real measure of the film, someone who has never heard of the treasured TV program—and she liked it a lot, laughed, clapped, groaned at a few places where the characters deliberately endangered the other, even gasped at a few surprises.
So I recommend the movie whether you loved the old show or not. It works, even if it’s not perfect. I’m hoping this film gets a second life on DVD and cable, maybe even builds some steam toward a sequel. Because that would truly be a Man From U.N.C.L.E. film.