Published on August 17th, 2015 | by Michael0
The Man From U.N.C.L.E
I was a tad apprehensive when I first learned of Guy Ritchie’s reboot of 60s spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. For one thing, Armie Hammer seemed to be hell bent on squandering his almost limitless leading man potential in pointless reboots, having played second fiddle to Johnny Depp’s Tonto in The Lone Ranger. For another, did the world really need another reboot, especially of a property that has long since faded from public consciousness? And another spy series no less, in a year full of them (Spectre, Spy, Kingsman and MI: Rogue Nation are all out in 2015).
After several false starts, Guy Ritchie finally got his cast together. The original series featured American actor Robert Vaughn as American Spy Napoleon Solo and a Scottish actor, David McCallum, as Russian Ilya Kuryakin. Nothing so simple here. No, now Channel Islander Henry Cavill plays Solo and Hammer, an American, is Kuryakin. To further confuse things, the third lead, an East German is portrayed by Swedish actor Alicia Vikander, Australian Elizabeth Debicki plays the Italian villain, Jared Harris (English, to Irish and Welsh parents) is Solo’s American boss. Hugh Grant, as Waverley, is just about the only actor permitted to use his own accent.
The film acts as an origin story for the series, which left the backgrounds of Solo and Kuryakin deliberately vague. Here, the suave Solo is revealed to have been a WWII vet who made a fortune stealing art and antiques before being pressganged into service for the CIA to avoid a prison sentence. Cavill channels Vaughn by way of Cary Grant in his depiction of Solo. In contrast is Hammer’s Kuryakin who joined the KGB in an attempt to escape the shame of his father’s incarceration in a Siberian gulag. Where Solo is laidback, Kuryakin is intense, a huge juggernaut of a man frequently referred to as ‘it’ by Solo in the pair’s first encounter. The Spy Vs Spy mission they meet on involves the race to extract Gaby Teller, a young East German mechanic whose rocket scientist father may have been kidnapped by Italian fascists. There’s something almost sweet about making the Nazis the villains in a film set in 1963. I assume this was done so that it wouldn’t seem strange when Solo and Kuryakin inevitably team up as well as giving the audience someone unambiguously evil to root against. East or West, we all hate Nazis, right?
The thrust of the story, then, is that a rich Italian fascist, Victoria Vinciguerra, is attempting to manufacture nuclear bombs to help bring about the third (fourth?) Reich and our dashing spies must stop her by exploiting Gaby’s relationship with her Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth, an actual German). In reality though the slight plot is merely an excuse for the handsome, charismatic leads to engage is plenty of one-upsmanship and culture clash banter. As befitting a film set in the 60s with Nazis villains, the contrasting ideologies of Kuryakin and Solo rarely get a mention, beyond the nicknames they give each other: ‘Peril’ and ‘Cowboy’. Some of the best scenes in the film are with an eye firmly on comedy rather than thrills, such as when Solo and Kuryakin argue fashion when attempting to pass Teller off as Kuryakin’s fiancé.
There’s also a rich vein of humour running throughout the film’s action sequences. In one early heist, the bickering pair try and outdo each other with their various gadgets and skills. The sequence climaxes with Solo relaxing with a sandwich as Kuryakin leads the guards on a merry dance in a speed boat. Less impressive though is Ritchie’s need to spell everything out for the viewers. For instance, one scene has Solo using his light fingers to relieve several people of their possessions. All well and good, but Ritchie insists on flashing back to each instance, long after the audience have figured it all out. This sort of back tracking might work well in the Sherlock Holmes films (showing us Holmes’ thinking processes) but it’s utterly redundant here. The film’s final action sequence has so much unnecessary explanation that it appears to resemble a student’s copy of Hamlet with notes scribbled in the margins. Perhaps these sequences are a nod to the BBC series Hustle which of course starred the original Napoleon Solo, Robert Vaughn. I can’t think of another reasonable explanation.
Overall the film is good, lightweight fun. It isn’t going to be up for a whole host of awards and may struggle to find an audience in a market already saturated with both reboots and spy series. As an adaptation of the series I think it keeps the spirit if differing in crucial ways – Cavill’s Solo is far closer to his TV counterpart than Hammer’s Kuryakin. To the film’s credit it attempts to add variety to the TV formula, which regularly had Solo and Kuryakin teaming up with an innocent party. Here, Vikander’s Teller is given real agency in her role, playing a clever game of her own while working with the seasoned agents. It seems clear that she might have a role to play if the series is to continue. Whether the film will do the required business remains to be seen.