Readers of this website are aware of the fact that I am an aficionado of the ’60s superspy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E . But I awaited Guy Ritchie’s “reimagining” of U.N.C.L.E. with some trepidation. A big screen adaptation of the series has been in the works for around 40 years. And an execrable TV movie was actually made in 1983. The theatrical film project has changed hands many times, and innumerable scripts have been written. After Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino announced that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would be his next project (I reacted to this news with mixed feelings). Then Steven Soderbergh almost made the film — before quitting due to disagreements over the budget. This was bad news, since Soderbergh had reportedly studied the series’ first (and best) season carefully. Tom Cruise (barf!), George Clooney (yawn), and other major stars were cast as secret agent Napoleon Solo, then left the project for one reason or another.
The first reports about how Ritchie would approach the film immediately suggested to me that it would have little in common with the original series. And later reports explicitly confirmed this: there would be no actual U.N.C.L.E. organization in the film, no Thrush, and Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin have only just met. In short, this would be an “origin story.” I objected to this, but it was no use: Ritchie would not return my calls. And so when I went to see the film on its opening day, I took what I thought to be the only logical, and fair approach: I would judge the film on its own merits, without constantly comparing it to the original series. U.N.C.L.E. fan sites have been abuzz for the better part of the year complaining about Ritchie’s approach, asserting that Robert Vaughn and David McCallum could “never be replaced,” etc. This just seemed foolish to me.
So, judged on its own merits . . . . this film just isn’t that great. And — yes, yes I just can’t help it: it’s not an improvement on the TV series, except in its production values and the technical skill with which it was carried off. But then it’s hardly fair to compare the production values of a current feature film, which cost $75 million (cheap by today’s standards!) to those of a TV series that premiered more than fifty years ago.
I was shocked when I read an account of the plot months ago: the forces of good must stop an evil organization from acquiring . . . What would be your guess, if you don’t already know? An earthquake machine? A brain killing machine? A volcanic blower-upper? An army of beautiful-but-deadly-female-robots? Invisible killer bees? Will gas? Docility gas? Fear gas? Hiccup gas? (Those all featured in the original U.N.C.L.E. series .) No! The answer is: an atomic bomb. But wait — isn’t that Thunderball? And isn’t it also the plot of the godawful TV movie Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.?
In other words, any single episode of the original series has a better plot — or, let us just say, a better McGuffin — than this film. Yes, I must admit that the film has a more complicated plot than most episodes of the TV show. But that’s actually not one of its virtues.
As to the stars, physically they are undeniably an improvement on Robert Vaughn and David McCallum — who would look like dwarfs standing next to Henry Cavill (Solo) and Armie Hammer (Illya). And they are far better looking. The trouble is that on the whole they are not as interesting. Cavill’s face is so handsome it doesn’t look real. But he is also very bland in this role (I’ve not seen any of his other films, so I can’t really make a judgment about his acting skills as a whole.)
Cavill is British, in case you don’t know, and the American accent he affects in this film sounds like he is trying to imitate an American TV announcer. No, not that throaty, expressive one who used to say “The Loooooooooooooooove Boat.” No, I mean one of those really bland, flat nasally announcers like they had in . . . well, like they had in the 1960s. His Solo has been completely “reimagined” as a former thief blackmailed into working as a spy for the U.S. government. This has no relation to the Solo of the original series. Instead it is a rip off of the premise of another ’60s spy show, It Takes A Thief.
By contrast, Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin is not half bad. And his Russian accent is far more believable than Cavill’s American accent. And I will even venture the heresy that Hammer is more convincing as a Russian than McCallum. In one of the film’s few parallels to the series, Illya is the more interesting and complex character, whereas Solo is portrayed as a one-dimensional womanizer. Illya is hard to get, whereas Solo is easy. Hammer’s Illya actually seems like he might be a virgin.
Vaughn and McCallum had chemistry, whereas Cavill and Hammer have little to speak of. You can already guess exactly what happens, vis-à-vis their partnership. Working on opposite sides, Solo and Illya begin as enemies. They duke it out and fling barbs at each other — literally and figuratively — but then they begin to develop a grudging respect . . . Blah, blah, blah, blah. Respect and, yes, affection. Though I saw nothing at all “homoerotic” in their relationship, contrary to what other reviewers have asserted. This is basically a buddy film.
As I have mentioned, Thrush are not the villains here. Who is? Well, can you guess?
Yes — you got it right! It’s the Nazis. Or former Nazis (the film is set in 1963). Or something like that. The main villains in the film are actually Italians with connections to Mussolini, who happen to be employing ex-Nazis. But, no matter: they’re all called “Nazis” in this film. Cavill actually pronounces it “GNAT-sies” (thus betraying his Britishness). The most unpleasant moment comes when Solo is captured by a former Nazi torturer. The torture he then endures is nothing, however, compared to the fact that when the Nazi reveals his past Ritchie treats us to a brief montage of the Nazis and WWII complete with obligatory “Sieg Heil!” audio clip. Apparently this is there in case audience members are too stupid to know what the character is referring to when he mentions WWII.
Of course, I have argued elsewhere that Thrush and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and B.I.G.O. and all the rest of them are really Nazis in disguise, and that U.N.C.L.E. and Bond and Matt Helm et al. are all fighting the Nazi/fascist menace , as viewed through the lens of Allied propaganda. (U.N.C.L.E. must stop Thrush from taking over the world! Etc.) The difference here is that at least the makers of these ’60s products had the imagination to disguise their Nazis. Here they are just Nazis. Just like the villains in every other Hollywood film. The fight against Hitler really never ends . . .
There is absolutely nothing surprising, original, or innovative about the storyline of this film. It even employs the hackneyed “kidnapped scientist’s beautiful daughter” plot device (used more than once in the original U.N.C.L.E., and — once more — a plot device in 1983’s Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.). Virtually any episode of the original series is more imaginative and less predictable than what we are offered here.
The best thing I can say about this film — aside from Hammer’s surprisingly engaging performance — is that it’s got plenty of style. The photography is gorgeous. The costumes — all retro, retro, retro — are a feast for the eyes. The editing is the right kind of “fast paced” — not the jerky, never-hold-on-anything-for-more-than-two-seconds style that plagued Daniel Craig’s second Bond outing, Quantum of Solace, and many other recent films. And yet even on the issue of style I must qualify my compliments. For nothing is new here; all is derivative. Ritchie is trying to recreate the look and feel not just of the ’60s, but of ’60s cinema. He even throws in a split-screen sequence à la 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair.
I thought that Daniel Pemberton’s score had its moments. At times it reminded me of Gerald Fried and Robert Drasnin’s scores for the second season of U.N.C.L.E. But then it also manages to (literally) lift material from Ennio Morricone and a host of other composers. Indeed, the score reminded me of one of those albums by Nicola Conte  that are deliberate attempts at a retro ’60s style. You listen to them thinking “Now he’s doing U.N.C.L.E. . . . Now he’s doing I Spy . . . Now’s he’s doing Seven Golden Men . . .”
Come to think of it, this entire film is like a Nicola Conte album. It’s kinda this, kinda that, kinda this, kinda that. Ironically it’s hardly at all kinda like the original U.N.C.L.E. Is it kinda entertaining? Yeah. But I kinda think I wouldn’t have liked it that much even if I hadn’t seen the original series. I found myself sighing with impatience at several points in the film. But that may be because I’m kinda old. Would younger folks (i.e., guys) like this movie? Yes, I think so. Kinda. Actually, they might like it a lot. We shall see. As to women, they will kinda like it less. Though I saw it with a woman, who actually liked it more than I did. (She was quite taken with Armie Hammer.)
Aside from Cavill and Hammer, the film features a so-so performance by Alicia Vikander as the scientist’s beautiful daughter. Vikander is being overhyped. The real female standout of the cast is Elizabeth Debicki, who is very good as the villainess. She reminds me — in looks and wardrobe — of Camilla Sparv in the 1966 Matt Helm film Murderers’ Row.
Die-hard U.N.C.L.E. fan that I am, I doubt I would see this film again except under pressure. But, to be honest, I am hoping there is a sequel. One that would introduce the U.N.C.L.E. organization, Thrush, and all the cool gadgets (the current film is pretty light on gadgets). This outing leaves the door open for that. But I am not getting my hopes up. Ritchie’s Man From U.N.C.L.E., sadly, is more a symptom of the times than anything else. Like Mad Men, it yearns for an earlier, more stylish, more honest time — with the virtue that unlike Mad Men it doesn’t simultaneously spit at it. However much this yearning may seem (somehow) commendable and healthy, it simply has the effect of highlighting how empty are the souls of the men making this stuff. Ritchie and company have nothing of their own to say. You see, those who yearn are those who lack. Their hearts are tugging them in the right direction (kinda), but their hearts are still empty, yearning to be filled. And, ultimately, the fact that they yearn to be filled with the spirit of the ’60s is pretty damned sad.