From 1964 to 1968, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum costarred in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; a rollicking and uber-sophisticated spy thriller TV series meant to do for the small screen what Ian Fleming’s James Bond had done for the movies. Formulaic to a fault, but developed by co-producer, Sam Rolfe to mask most of the obviousness beneath a patina of swinging sixties mod adventures, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was as glamorous and witty as one might expect; perfect entertainment in a decade shared by The Saint (1961-68) and The Avengers (1961-69). With a few lighter moments factored in, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. proved a delectable nod to this fanciful Cold War cloak and dagger: TV’s original odd couple, American CIA operative, Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and his Soviet KGB counterpart, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), begrudgingly managed by spy wrangler supreme, Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll). Flash forward to director, Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation, also titled The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; so described as a ‘second-rate James Bond/Mission Impossible adventure. Respectfully, I submit there is a difference; a tangible and important one, as Ritchie’s movie is neither a cheap or deliberate impersonation of these two aforementioned film franchises; nor does it try and hang on to the superficial appeal of being a direct derivative of the TV series whose name it bears. Ritchie’s flick could have so easily turned into another Hollywoodized and badly bungled gumbo, a la the big screen mistreatment The Avengers incurred in 1998.
The trick and the blessing herein is Ritchie is not trying to be a knock-off of any of the aforesaid; having made two critical executive decisions to ensure his picture can be spun off into a film franchise of its own. First, Ritchie has chosen to ground his story in that spectacularly luminous appeal of sixties glam-bam; Mussolini’s Rome in particular, looking as though a Technicolor snapshot excised from Federico Fellini’s otherwise B&W La Dolce Vita (1960); the daring escape sequence that begins the picture in a monochromatic East Berlin, vaguely reminiscent of the opener from Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965). There are moments in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as brazenly chic and as devilishly audacious as 1969’s The Italian Job and other sequences that hold a candle to the Connery/Lazenby era of classic Bondian adventures. Second, Ritchie has kept alive just enough of what made the original series memorable, while adding a decidedly contemporary slant to both the story and its action sequences that make it more palpable than mere time capsule. This bodes extremely well for the storytelling – at least, partly. Fair enough, the DePalma-esque split-screen editing employed by James Hebert is a tad heavy-handedly applied; too much conflicting information to take in and digest within a single frame. And I could have easily done without the discombobulating handheld camerawork during the downhill race that caps off the show. This left me unable to settle my gaze on virtually any of the footage without becoming queasy in the pit of my stomach. But otherwise – this kit is nicely put together and slickly packaged with some flashy bling along the way.
Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer step into the fine-leather shoes of their predecessors as the immaculately groomed and equally as cocky Napoleon and earthy Russian bear colleague, Illya respectively; doing virtually all their own stunts with the aid of some meticulously tricked out machinery and a few briefly doubled inserts, deftly photographed and going for broke by cinematographer, John Mathieson, who is unafraid to hold his tight shots on Cavill and Hammer to illustrate their obvious physical assets. Both Cavill and Hammer are in impeccable shape, as their raucous ‘cute meet’ confrontation inside a cramped public restroom attests; pummeling one another into the stalls and tearing apart virtually all the break-away furnishings. Even more rewarding, Cavill and Hammer look the parts as a cut above the rest for what generally passes as the rugged male animal on screen these days. It is gratifying to finally see a thriller where the leading players are impeccably attired and drop-dead handsome; the villain – uber-bitch, Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) – in tandem, is cruel, slinky and oozing erotic sex appeal, while contemptuous to a fault and worthy of her comeuppances in the end, and, the leading lady, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikandercan) is both a turbo-charged sexpot (hints of the classic Bond girl), but also, a lady, eschewing the cliché of the damsel in distress and still contributing to this show.
For the most part, The Man from U.N.C.L.E is a high-octane extravagance with a few improbable twists and just enough saucy dialogue sandwiched in between its showdowns to make it all click as it should. It’s not high art. Then again, why try to be? A popcorn pleaser, it definitely is, and easily one of the most stylish made in the last decade; Daniel Craig’s outings as James Bond included. It helps, Guy Ritchie has left U.N.C.L.E to its Cold War amusements; looking back on that reconstituted ‘reality’ gleaned from the decade’s TV shows and movies rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel with a darker, more joyless impression on the actual period taken from life itself. Ritchie’s verve for mild camp in this mega-budgeted screen adaptation is perfection itself, invigoratingly apart from the mainstream’s slavish aim – and, by my thinking, misfire – to bottle the grim verisimilitude of the actual profession of spying.
Leaving the poisoned umbrellas and cyanide capsules at home, Ritchie just baits us with good, clean fun. We are never meant to take any of this seriously. Mission accomplished. No one could accuse The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for being a hard-boiled Cold War thriller. Instead, it’s a dog and pony show about the mod generation; sleek and spiritedly attired in all the frothy accoutrements of sixties ‘feel good.’ At times, Ritchie seems to be channeling his inspirations from both 1963’s The Pink Panther and James Bond. Miraculously, it is never a strain to suggest these two could operate side by side and, even more remarkably, as equals; Hammer’s expressionless angry young man chronically referring to Cavill’s dapper Dan as ‘cowboy’; Solo returning the favor by repeatedly suggesting Illya’s brutish KGB knows absolutely nothing of subtlety, class or decorum – in short, feeding into the time-honored movie cliché of the sexless/joyless and charm-free Russian thug muscle. There is a reason why hyperbole – done right – still works; the screenplay co-authored by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram instinctually knowing which chestnuts to pluck and ply to their craft.
So easily, it could have gone the other way. Indeed, producer, John Davis had optioned the film rights to the sixties franchise all the way back in 1993; setting up a development deal with Warner Bros. and series producer, Norman Felton. But the process by which Davis and the studio would both be satisfied was hard won, going through fourteen drafts of the screenplay over the next twenty years. After the success of Pulp Fiction (1994) it looked as though Quentin Tarantino might write and direct this adaptation. Mercifully, this never happened. I can only shudder to think of the blood-soaked and foul-mouthed adaptation that might have materialized had Tarantino signed on. Instead, other names floated in an out of the rumor mill; directors, Matthew Vaughn and David Dobkin; then, Steven Soderbergh, cribbing from a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns. Warner Bros. initially fought to keep the production budget hovering around $60 million; the final cost to produce The Man from U.N.C.L.E. exceeding it by $15 million. Alas, casting the picture equally proved a nightmare.
At one point, Gaby was to have been played by Emily Blunt – who would have been truly marvelous in the role. But Elizabeth Debicki’s femme fatale was first offered to Rose Byrne, then Charlize Theron, neither actress very much interested in the part. Thankfully, the original idea to cast George Clooney as Napoleon Solo fizzled after Clooney informed the studio he had a bad back and would not be able to fulfill the project’s arduous stunt work. In hindsight, equally a blessing was Tom Cruise’s prior commitments on Mission Impossible 3, preventing him from partaking in this exercise. In the 80’s, Cruise’s star power was Teflon-coated. Arguably, it has never recovered from rumors of inadequacy surrounding his three failed marriages, his charisma as token beefcake at the box office taking a hit and then steadily departing, along with his inevitable youth an afterthought in the rearview. Of the myriad of other choices bandied about for Napoleon Solo, I can think of only a handful that might have done the part justice: Ewan McGregor, Clive Owen, Jon Hamm and Henry Cavill among them.
At age 32, the six foot Cavill is in a highly enviable bargaining position in Hollywood; with a sparkling set of blue eyes, dimpled chin, thick mane of jet-black hair and sufficiently muscular to boot; his killer smile, ruggedly masculine either stubbly or clean-shaven, Cavill emerges in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as the sort of leading man Hollywood has not fostered since the male beauties of the early 40’s; Robert Taylor, Cary Grant or Clark Gable, with a dash of Steve McQueen and Steve Reeves thrown in; having broken through to international acclaim, though alas, mostly in predictably mindless actioners and superhero franchises (with more to follow – gag!). Cavill gets more of an opportunity to ‘act’ in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – perhaps, because Guy Ritchie knows he has bought more than just a pretty face and toned body with this package; Ritchie and costumer, Joanna Johnson remaining differently above it all in resisting the urge to give in to the transparency of beefcake as the Bond franchise has increasingly done with the arrival of Daniel Craig. Cavill’s star power is not in his biceps, though it helps his eye-candy status immensely. But he projects an air of austere toughness – nee, ice-watered cruelty, married to a titanic bravado that, on anyone else, would be damn near insufferable, but on him ranks as the height of put-together male studliness. Cavill can also pull off a few lighter bits of comedy with all the panache of Roger Moore. Like Cary Grant, Cavill is not afraid to periodically poke fun at this egocentric image with a wink and a nudge; giving us his interpretation of the cream of the jest before the audience can even guess at it. As such, we laugh with his Napoleon Solo – rather than at him. Here is a man who loves only one thing more than the good life – himself. Aside: it will be interesting to see how Cavill navigates the course to evolve as an actor of merit.
From the outset, Armie Hammer was cast to play Illya; Hammer’s paternal great-grandmother, Russian-born actress and singer, Olga Vadimovna Vadina. Hammer’s been less exposed to the elixir of stardom than Cavill and, as such, is not yet considered leading man material. That may change for the actor after this movie as he matches his co-star’s impertinence and arrogance blow for blow and barb for barb; pulling both off with a faux Russian accent. The knee-jerk reaction to this Cold War détente has made these two adversaries uncomfortable partners on a singular mission; Guy Ritchie perhaps trying a little too heavy-handedly, especially in the early scenes, to turn out Hammer’s KGB as the sort of stereotypical assassin a la Richard Kiel’s superhuman Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). There is even a scene where Hammer’s Illya manages to rip off the trunk hatch of Gaby and Solo’s getaway car; flinging what would otherwise be a fairly heavy hunk of metal into the air as though it were a plastic Frisbee. Thankfully, the rest of the movie does not play as fast and loose with the big bad Ruskie; Hammer stepping up to the plate, and playing some unexpected bits of comedy with great restraint and an instinct for knowing exactly where the emphasis ought to be – either on the comedy or the tenderness. As example: the scene where Illya repeated falls for Gaby’s drunken seductions, his face slapped every time he anticipates a kiss. Given Illya’s predilection toward violence exhibited earlier – and without even an ounce of provocation – we perhaps expect Illya now to get tough with Gaby, or, at the very least, fling her like a rag doll onto the bed, leading directly into a predictably hot and heavy love scene. Unusually, the script disappoints on this score – Gaby’s slaps somewhat emasculating instead; the subsequent tussle between Gaby and Illya ending with Gaby passed out on the floor after having consumed far too much alcohol; Illya, gingerly depositing her unconscious body on the bed with all the doting regard of a loyal brother.
After a rather frenetic main title sequence with far too much backstory unravelling before our eyes to keep the names above or below the titles in focus, our story opens in 1963. We meet professional thief cum CIA agent, Napoleon Solo, ordered by his superior, the curmudgeonly Sanders (Jared Harris) to get Gaby Teller out from behind the Iron Curtain. Gaby is the daughter of nuclear physicist, Udo Teller (Christian Berkel); a defector, presently working for the Nazis, but turned inside collaborator for the U.S. at the end of WWII. Solo is the epitome of masculine chic; put together like a GQ centerfold with all the trappings of today’s enterprising metrosexual and the unbearable handsomeness to sell it to virtually any woman he chooses to seduce. Alas, he lacks an understanding heart – replaced herein by a coolly sarcasm and enterprising desire to loosen the federal government’s yolk around his neck. He will do their bidding so long as there is a little carrot attached for him. But Solo bites off more than he can chew when Gaby turns out to be a fairly aggressive, street-savvy and sinfully sexy no nonsense gal. She can definitely handle herself in a tight situation. Almost immediately, Solo puts her into one; a daring escape through the narrow streets of East Berlin, pursued by Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin, who narrowly manages to steal Gaby back. This one-upmanship will become a running gag throughout The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; Ritchie tugging on the old ‘mine’s bigger than yours is’ male chest-thumping while illustrating the strengths and weaknesses each man possesses, thus setting up how their latter day détente will prove a match made in spy heaven…or some such place.
Returning to the relative safety of his home base, Solo is put in an unlikely position by Saunders; forced to work with Illya to unearth the whereabouts of a nuclear bomb. The clock is ticking – literally, as Gaby’s uncle, Rudi (Sylvester Groth) may hold the key. And so, after placating Gaby with a trend-setting wardrobe to soften the blow, Solo lays it on the line for her. She will fake a surprise engagement to Illya for Rudi’s benefit; the couple arriving separately from Solo in Rome and Solo posing as an antiquities dealer; the trio attending a ‘by invitation only’ Formula-1 race, hosted by shipping magnets, Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria Vinciguerra; a wealthy couple rumored to be Nazi sympathizers. Unbeknownst to anyone, the jetsetters are holding Udo prisoner until he completes their doomsday device. Up to his old heist tricks, Solo effortlessly swipes his invitation from British MI6 commander, Waverly (Hugh Grant); then, proceeds to lighten several guests, including Victoria, of their priceless jewelry. She is moderately impressed by his stealth but doesn’t let her obvious attraction to Solo muddle her thinking. In the meantime, Alexander flirts with Gaby after she illustrates a deft ability to tune up his racing car at a moment’s glance.
Told by Solo they will be tested in their cover, Illya allows two seemingly amateurish street hustlers to swipe his most prized possession: his father’s watch. However, back at their hotel suite, Illya develops the radiation-sensitive film he shot while at the races. Its ‘hot’ images prove unequivocally the Vinciguerras are up to something. Armed with this evidence, Solo and Illya begrudgingly conspire to break into the Vinciguerra shipyards under the cover of night, hoping to discover the bomb on site. Alas, the laboratories have been relocated. Only traces of uranium are found on the premises. Regrettably, Solo inadvertently sets off the company alarm, forcing him and Illya to launch into a daring escape by breaking a window on the second floor and blindly diving out it. Regrettably, both men fall short of the getaway boat docked outside; making their way to the moored speeder and eventually pulling away as a small army of security guards open fire on them. Illya is too late to make the most of their departure; the locks automatically sealed, creating a sort of giant bathtub of water. In narrowly averting an oncoming boat, Solo is thrown into the water, resurfacing unnoticed and managing to swim to shore. Patiently, he waits until Illya has all but exhausted his possibilities of escape, before casually driving a truck off the pier. It lands flat on the security guard’s boat, sinking it to the bottom of the water. Diving into the murky waters after Illya, who has been knocked unconscious by the blast, Solo manages to spare his life.
Although Victoria suspects Solo and Illya of this botched break-in, the pair manages to slip past her henchmen waiting for them at the hotel and return to their respective suites unnoticed. To further cover up their activities, Solo seduces Victoria into bed. It is an almost perfect covert operation, except the next afternoon, Udo unexpectedly betrays Illya to Rudi and Alexander. Unaware their cover has been blown Solo walks into a trap; sedated and taken hostage by Victoria. Now, he awakens bound to a homemade electric chair in an experimental lab, Victoria allowing Rudi to conduct his wartime Nazi medical experiments on him. Aside: it has become something of ‘the fashion’ for every actioner made in the last twenty years to produce a fanny-twitching sequence in which our hero’s threshold for pain is tested. I have grown a little weary of these ‘torture’ scenes. By now, they are old hat at best, and hackneyed endeavors at their worst, primitively designed to humanize men of action who, by their very definition, ought to be able to take it on the chin, nose, balls and any other body parts one should so choose to brutalize with relish, yet still walk away relatively unharmed and – on occasion – not even terribly bruised; apart from one’s own vanity. And so, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has Cavill’s put-together spy-hunk put through the ringer; strapped into this electrocution device, with Rudi giving us a big build-up to an anticipated torture sequence never to fully materialize. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was released prior to the latest Bond feature, Spectre, sporting a remarkably similar torture sequence. Arguably, Daniel Craig’s Bond set the template for such sequences with his ball-busting vignette in Casino Royale (2006).
Even more predictably, the torture device in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is turned on Rudi to give him a taste of his own medicine after Illya infiltrates the secret hideaway by tracking Solo with a Russian-made homer hidden in his shoe. Herein, Guy Ritchie is, I think, going for the sort of sophomoric humor Tarantino invoked in Pulp Fiction; the scene where John Travolta’s Vincent Vega accidentally discharges his gun in the face of his unsuspecting recent captive, Marvin (Phil LaMarr) immediately coming to mind. In The Man from U.N.C.L.E. we get the opportunity to witness the electric chair’s grotesque malfunction. It shorts out and literally incinerates Rudi while Solo and Illya stand only a few feet away debating the finer points of pumping this known Nazi war criminal for vital information; both apparently oblivious to the fact Rudi has already been ignited in a hellish fireball, thus rendering their debate moot. In the meantime, Victoria takes Gaby hostage, reuniting her with Udo on her private island. Udo is, in fact, a double agent, working for the British. Father and daughter share a brief reunion, Gaby slipping the wrong lens into the bomb’s tracking system; Victoria recognizing the ruse (as both Udo and Gaby are double agents), and thereafter hurrying Gaby off in a Jeep towards the mainland; then, assassinating Udo once he has corrected the planned sabotage of the warhead.
Solo and Illya are confronted by Waverly, who reveals himself to be a high-ranking MI6 operative. Explaining how Gaby is really working for him, Waverly is given permission by their respective governments to use Solo and Illya to invade the Vinciguerra’s island retreat, along with a small unit of Royal Marines. Alexander takes Gaby by force on a daring escape along with the fake warhead. Illya – on motorcycle – and Solo, driving a supped up dune buggy, make chase across craggy and heavily forested terrain; their vehicles eventually colliding with and overturning Alexander’s getaway vehicle. Realizing the tracking device in the decoy can be reprogrammed to hone in on the actual bomb; Solo keeps Victoria on the telephone just long enough for the Marines to lock onto the coordinates of her innocuous-looking fishing trawler; the impact of the blast not enough to set off the real nuclear bomb, but ultimately killing Victoria in the process.
Their mission at an end, Illya’s superiors instruct him to show no mercy toward the ‘American’. With the threat of exile to Siberia looming overhead, Illya arrives at Solo’s suite, intent on killing him to obtain Udo’s research. However, having already anticipated the purpose for his visit, Solo has planned ahead and is prepared to kill Illya instead – but only, if necessary; first brokering his favor by restoring to him his father’s watch, recovered by Solo during the invasion of Victoria’s island retreat. To satisfy both their government’s interests, thus allowing them to remain ‘friends’, Solo and Illya agree to destroy Udo’s research. A short while later, the men, along with Gaby, toast an end to their mission with champagne. Too bad, Waverly has other ideas; intruding upon the trio to inform them of another international brouhaha in Istanbul for which both the American and Soviet governments have authorized him the use of their top agents to get the job done. The irony, that east meets west is not over yet, causes Solo, Illya and Gaby to scowl; each powerless to refuse this new order.
With its’ superb buddy/buddy chemistry married to some straight-laced genre shtick and brisk campiness, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stays mostly on course as the coolest customer in town; the quintessence of that bright and breezy, all-fizz, though some cola, summer blockbuster teeming with sun-drenched vistas and elegantly attired extras. Mixing up the conventions of the spy thriller, the actioner and the pseudo-romantic comedy, the picture is stitched together with Guy Ritchie’s expertise for solidly crafted matinee crowd-pleasing/escapist entertainment; exactly the sort of medicine to leave an admirably clean aftertaste that countermands our sour generation’s dearth of dark and depressing adventure yarns. I thoroughly enjoyed the picture for what it is – mindless fluff – rather than for what it ostensibly is aspiring to be; a valiant competitor to either the Bond or Mission Impossible franchises. There’s no competition here. Ritchie’s aim to entertain is solid and his principles are exactly what the doctor ordered. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is sleek, sophisticated, playfully obtuse and deliciously amusing. Let’s all hope this one gets a sequel.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is predictably impressive, preserving veteran British cinematographer, John Mathieson digital imagery to a tee, deliberately invoking blown-out contrast levels and an ever so slight, though deliberate teal bias for this rich and invigorating palette. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. veers in its visual extremes, from foreboding and almost monochromatic East Berlin to impossibly luxuriating Mediterranean lushness. This 1080p image is dappled in vibrant watercolor shades reproduced with appetizing brilliance. Contrast is superb, with zero black crush. Grain is practically nonexistent – not surprising, considering the whole production was shot using a variety of grain-concealing digital cameras; Arri Alexa Plus, and several Canon models, plus a GoPro. Warner has infused this disc with an impressive Dolby Atmos 7.1 mix; sonically saturating the acoustic nerve with a complimentary environment to the visuals provided herein. Dialogue is always crisp; effects during the more bombastic fight sequences really giving your speakers a workout. Great stuff. Extras amount to an impressively amassed series of junkets produced during filming; all of them presented in full 1080p, covering the creation of the movie, a look inside its’ character development, and celebrating the style of the sixties. Again, I really enjoyed this film: ditto for this disc – a nicely packed and intelligently produced offering from WB just before the holiday rush. Bottom line: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a solid ‘stocking stuffer’ for the armchair action guy in your family. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)