The Man from UNCLE Affair: The 2015 movie (spoilers)
Well, I haven’t bothered to continue my rewatch of the original The Man from U.N.C.L.E. beyond season 2, but I came upon last year’s Guy Ritchie-directed movie reboot of the premise, and I decided to give it a try, since I liked Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, and since I liked Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel, even though the film didn’t really let him be Superman. Coincidentally, Cavill’s co-star in TMFU, Armie Hammer, almost but not quite played Batman some years earlier, having been cast in George Miller’s planned Justice League movie before it was cancelled.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie has been criticized for not being all that faithful to its source material, but as readers of my previous reviews may recall, I wasn’t really that fond of the source material. It was the weakest of the ’60s spy shows, the most sexist and racist of them by a good margin, with the poorest rapport between its leading duo, who often seemed to hate each other and barely interacted at all in season 2. So the fact that this movie didn’t draw too heavily on the series was kind of an asset for me. And the fact that it told an origin story where the two leads started out hating each other felt pretty appropriate.
Ritchie’s TMFU is a very stylishly directed and edited film that I thought was a lot of fun to watch. It’s as cheeky as his Holmes films, but taking advantage of its ’60s setting to bring in more flashy action and editing tricks that feel like some of the more experimental, iconoclastic films of the period while also feeling very modern. There are neat tricks played with the English subtitles translating foreign dialogue, like flashing them on the screen in large type or having them superimposed over a conversation that’s largely inaudible to us until one character rolls the car window down. A couple of action sequences have the same kind of moving split-screen effects that Ang Lee used in Hulk, but not to the point of distracting overuse. Visual tricks aside, the action sequences are creatively choreographed and shot and quite effectively edited; Ritchie makes an interesting choice to downplay the violence by keeping it offscreen or in the distance or playing the scenes silently under music. Generally, the movie’s choice of what to focus on during an action scene is significantly different from the norm, often to quite refreshing effect. There’s also a heavy use of a technique the TV series Leverage used routinely, leaving bits out of a scene (e.g. showing only half a phone conversation) and then filling them in later in flashback to explain what was happening (e.g. by showing the whole conversation) — although this is one stylistic trick that I feel was overused here.
I talked about the style first because it was so impressive, but that isn’t meant to downplay the performers or the plot. This is an origin story giving background to Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin, and the UNCLE organization that they never had before. All of them are reinterpreted in ways that don’t quite fit the series, but again, I wasn’t that crazy about the series. Solo is now a WWII vet-turned-master thief who was recruited by the CIA so that his awesome thieving talents wouldn’t be wasted in jail. Kuryakin is a nigh-indestructible muscleman with serious anger management issues, pretty much none of which was ever hinted at in David McCallum’s version. There isn’t even an UNCLE organization until the very end of the film; Solo and Illya are, respectively, CIA and KGB agents competing to get to Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the daughter of a nuclear scientist they’re trying to find before he builds a bomb for neo-Nazis. Gaby, an auto mechanic, shows herself to be an incredibly skilled driver in the opening chase and handles herself coolly in a life-or-death situation, and yet somehow both male leads are surprised when she later turns out to be an MI-6 agent working for Hugh Grant’s Alexander Waverly, who ultimately assembles all three agents under him in a permanent team, which is supposedly the origin for the international UNCLE agency. We and they are supposed to assume for the first two acts that Gaby’s playing the standard TMFU role of “the innocent,” the civilian who gets inadvertently caught up in the spy game and has to be protected by the heroes, but she’s so skilled and together from the start that the twist is easy to see coming. And the twist involving Waverly’s role in the story only works if you’ve never seen the show and don’t recognize the name Waverly.
Henry Cavill does an impressive job playing Napoleon Solo. He captures Robert Vaughn’s cadence and tonality well, but downplays it to the point that it’s more an interpretation than mere mimicry. (His Solo is as much an underplayed impression of Vaughn’s Solo as Andrew Robinson’s Garak on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was an overplayed impression of same.) And yet I found his look and manner surprisingly reminiscent of Matt Bomer’s Neal Caffrey from the TV series White Collar. That’s fitting, since both characters are debonair, womanizing master thieves who reluctantly work for the government and dress in ’60s fashions. It’s also a reminder that Bomer was once a candidate to play Superman (for the abortive J.J. Abrams film) before Cavill got the role. (Bomer eventually did play Superman as a voice role in the animated Superman: Unbound.) As for Hammer, he’s reasonably effective as Illya, and his chemistry with Cavill is maybe comparable to what McCallum had with Vaughn, though that’s not saying much. Alicia Vikander is quite good as Gaby, just as she was quite good as Ava in Ex Machina, though this is a more conventional “spy-movie leading lady/romantic interest with hidden talents and depths” type of role. Making her essentially an equal partner to Solo and Kuryakin is a good antidote to the dreadful gender politics of the original show (and setting the story entirely in Berlin and Rome avoids the dreadful portrayal of non-Western cultures in the original show). The other major lead is the villainess, Victoria Vinciguerra (meaning “victory winning the war,” the same kind of themed name we’d often get in the series), played by Elizabeth Debicki. She’s excellent in the role, with a statuesque blonde beauty and a marvelously posh English accent that are perfect for a ’60s spy-movie archvillainess. I think her makeup artist deserves a lot of credit too, with the very ’60s look to Debicki’s eye makeup.
The music, by Daniel Pemberton, is also quite good and imaginative, although there’s also a heavy use of period songs that I wasn’t as fond of (but then, I’m never as fond of pop-song scoring as I am of orchestral scoring). I didn’t notice any use of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from the series (in either its original arrangement or the better-known Lalo Schifrin reworking), though it was included in the music credits at the end.
Is this the best spy movie ever? No. But it’s definitely fun and stylish, and a cool piece of ’60s nostalgia even if it’s not especially faithful to the specific piece of ’60s television that it’s based on. Heck, it’s got more in common with its source material than most of the Mission: Impossible movies. I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel, though I gather the movie didn’t perform all that well. I’d like to see whether they’d stick with the idea of UNCLE as just this small team or if they’d build it into something more like the large international peacekeeping agency of the original series. The end title graphics implied the latter, though it’s hard to see how they’d get there from these humble beginnings.
It would also be nice to see if, unlike the first four M:I movies, they could actually hold onto a female lead for more than one film…