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THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

 

Cry Uncle

Warner Brothers
 116 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Guy Ritchie 
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander 
C
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

At a time when seemingly every successful 1960’s television series had been made into a movie, one holdout was the at-one-time highly popular The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The reasons should have been obvious. U.N.C.L.E. was conceived as a way to cash in on the James Bond craze by offering a downsized version of Bond for television viewers every week. In fact, Norman Felton, the show’s executive producer, actually met with James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, once to get some ideas about the TV series, and it was Fleming who actually came up with the name for the title character, Napoleon Solo.

 

So, if you think about it, there really is no reason to make a movie about a TV series whose sole reason for being was to offer viewers a smaller scale version of James Bond-style action week after week. Moreover, while Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as actors made very good television leads, their characters were by no means as iconic as, say, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. And, while McCallum still has an active fan base (and is himself quite visible every week on NCIS), there’s little interest in the actual show, which rarely shows up on television.

 

Still, Guy Ritchie decided to turn Man from U.N.C.L.E. into a movie, and a big budget summer extravaganza at that. Since a faithful recreation of the series would have no chance for box office success, he has tried something that’s both different from the series and similar to his other movies. Ritchie (who directed and co-wrote the script) has tried to make a tongue-in-cheek, winking light comedy somewhere between Austin Powers and the Roger Moore era James Bond. He probably envisioned another romp like his gangster comedies but with a lot more style. Well, the style is there, and some humor is there, but that’s about it.

 

Ritchie retains the original concept of the television series of Solo (Henry Cavill), the CIA’s best agent, working on a case with the KGB’s finest, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). However, while the TV show was pretty much de-politicized by having the two work for a fictional Interpol clone, Ritchie gives his leads a backstory and a reason for reluctant collaboration. Solo, it turns out, is a reluctant CIA operative; he was a former master thief who agreed to work for the U.S. government instead of doing time. Kuryakin, on the other hand, is a true believer, a big brute of a guy with daddy and barely contained anger management issues.

 

Their case involves some ex-Nazis trying to get their hands on a working nuclear bomb. They operate under cover of an Italian shipping company run by Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). Solo recruits Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of the lead scientist working on the bomb, to get close to her father and find out what’s going on. Of course, the facts that she’s gorgeous to look at and happens to be a crack auto mechanic and driver also come in handy.

 

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is unquestionably one of the most sylish movies to come around in a long time. Cavill, Vikander, Debicki, and a host of secondary characters and extras have lots of fun cavorting around in Joanna Johnston’s sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated creations, and the bright production design doesn’t so much suggest the TV series (or James Bond for that matter) but the host of light espionage caper romps that abounded in that era. One of the best of that group was Charade, so it’s probably no coincidence that Cavill seems to be channeling Cary Grant in his performance.

 

Armie Hammer, who had the bad luck of playing The Lone Ranger two years ago, draws the short end of the stick here. He’s given a character to play who may be borderline psychotic and he’s stuck with a much more pedestrian wardrobe as befits his cover as a visiting Soviet engineer. He’s also stuck with an accent that seems to come and go from scene to scene and a dearth of the sex appeal that made McCallum a hit on TV.

 

The plot of the movie U.N.C.L.E. actually could have come from an episode of the television series, but that’s no compliment. Instead, the movie seems to operate on the principle of having Solo and Illya poke around the bad guys’ headquarters enough until they find something and the shooting starts. The action is quite poorly staged with almost every sequence seeming as if it occurred on an episode of a very low budget cable series. For those looking for action, I’d honestly suggest watching the TV show instead.

 

Ritchie has always had some rather odd directorial flourishes in his films and U.N.C.L.E. is no exception. He stages action scenes in split screen, seemingly for the sole purpose of making sure no one can actually follow the action. He also on multiple occasions stages a scene only to show it again a few minutes later. The second time, the viewers are supposed to notice bits of business that explain the plot twists. The only problem with that is that most viewers actually noticed the business the first time (such as Solo “cleverly” picking people’s pockets at a swanky party).

 

The worst flaw in U.N.C.L.E. is the fact that it’s simply not as funny as Ritchie thinks it is. While some bits, such as Solo and Illya debating fashion  as they shop for wardrobes, do work, others, like an extended riff involving a Nazi who enjoys torturing people, do not. When the movie as a whole seems intent on making viewers aware of how clever and witty it is, failed jokes (of which there are a good bit too many of in the film) quickly burn up any good will the film has generated.

 

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. turned out to be pretty much exactly what I’d expected, an inconsequential, highly forgettable film based on an inconsequential, nearly forgotten TV series. For its stars and its director, the movie is merely a blip on the road to better things (Cavill as Superman, Hammer in the Birth of a Nation revision, Ritchie reworking the legend of King Arthur). At least, it’s a movie that’s bright and visually appealing enough to get audiences through the inevitable doldrums at the end of their cinematic summer without crying “Uncle.” 

Read other reviews of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.:

 

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) on IMDb

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