The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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Release: 2015
Country: United States
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenplay: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram
Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant, Luca Calvani, Jared Harris


Although lord knows the world doesn’t need another origin story — modern films are positively obsessed with explaining every single detail of every single character in film history, leaving nothing to assumption or mystery and never accepting that sometimes we simply don’t need to know — The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is an origin story. It’s set before the events of the popular if only vaguely remembered television series on which it is based (and of which I am a fan) and involves the first meeting of agents Napoleon Solo (played here by Henry Cavill, in the television show by Robert Vaughan) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer in this movie, David McCallum in the original show).

In the show, they were already partners and the mysterious agency for which they worked, U.N.C.L.E., was already well established. The movie picks up their story earlier in their careers, before they were friends, before U.N.C.L.E. existed, and attempts to explain the peculiar circumstances which would lead to an American and Russian agent working together at the height of the Cold War. Despite by general distaste for origin stories, as far as they go, this one at least seems worth telling and hasn’t been told before. Or rather, it has been told before. Many times. Just not in the context of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The American Solo we learn is a reluctant spy, a former thief who got caught and was given the ol’ “spy for us or rot in prison” choice. Luckily, it turns out his unique set of skills, good looks, and lovable roguish attitude make him the perfect spy. On the other side of the Iron Curtain is Kuryakin. Similarly handsome, also highly skilled, and also possessed of a flawed past — in this case, a disgraced father and an inability at times to control his rage. The two meet for the first time on opposite side of an effort to spirit beautiful German mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander, also in the science fiction film Ex Machina in 2015) out of East Berlin in hopes that she will, in turn, lead American intelligence forces to her father, a brilliant nuclear physicist with disreputable ties to the Nazis who has gone missing. Ah, the old “missing scientist with a beautiful daughter” plot; it served the Eurospy films of the 1960s so well and so often.

Solo, of course, is the man chosen to affect her escape while Kuryakin is the KGB agent who gets wise to the plan and seeks to foil it. Solo emerges victorious in the confrontation by the skin of his teeth, impressed and more than a bit terrified by his relentless and seemingly indestructible Russian adversary. But Solo’s escape with Gaby doesn’t last for long, as no sooner is he on the western side of the Berlin Wall than he learns that, because the disappearance of Gaby’s father threatens both the United States and Soviet Union, he is getting saddled with a partner from the other side. No big shock who that turns out to be. From there the plot gets increasingly convoluted, as Eurospy plots usually tended to be, but it necessitates travel to a lot of glamorous locations while wearing an array of fabulous outfits.

It is perhaps somewhat assumed that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. needs no introduction. It was one of the seminal spy TV shows of the 1960s, beloved by many. But it turns out, it’s perhaps not as well remembered as people who remember it think. The show first hit the airwaves in 1964, fairly hot on the heels of the initial success of the James Bond films Doctor No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), and most influential of all, Goldfinger (1964), and the rising popularity of the oddball British scifi-spy series The Avengers, which had undergone a gradual but rather drastic retooling since its debut in 1961. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was one of the first shows out of the gate in the US to capitalize on the burgeoning craze over spy fiction and was followed by similarly popular series Mission: Impossible and I Spy.

U.N.C.L.E.‘s premise was unique in that, in a Cold War era highlighted by the United States and the Soviet Union wandering to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the show was about a largely a-national organization in which an American worked hand-in-hand with his friend and partner, a Soviet. It was cheeky, witty, exciting, and it dared to imagine circumstances under which our politics weren’t as big a divider as they were in real life. Their primary adversary is a similarly nation-free criminal organization known as THRUSH, and if this all sounds a bit SPECTRE and James Bondy, it’s not only because of the success of the 007 movies. The original concept for U.N.C.L.E. was created by Norman Felton, a British producer working in the United States. When developing the concept, he sought the advice of none other than James Bond creator Ian Fleming, who devised two characters for the show: Napoleon Solo and April Dancer.

With these characters in tow, Felton commissioned scripts by a number of writers, including a young Harlan Ellison, for a series called Ian Fleming’s Solo. Things could evolve quickly on television, and soon the show began to change. Input from another producer, Sam Rolfe, helped solidify the make-up of the organization for which Solo worked. The show’s name was changed, with UNCLE being conceived as a nebulous acronym with no clearly stated meaning (that was later changed). April Dancer disappeared from the scripts (though she would later be revived in her own spin-off series, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) and Solo was paired in the pilot episode with a housewife, the idea being that the show would explore the intersection of mundane everyday life with the high-stakes world of international espionage (in much the same way Fleming himself sought to do in his novel, The Spy Who Loved Me). The show would focus primarily on Solo, played by Robert Vaughan.

There was no mention of Illya Kuryakin. Kuryakin does not appear until the third episode, and then only as a minor character intended as a one-off, just another in the long line of people with whom Napoleon Solo works. But actor David McCallum clicked with audience members — especially with female audience members. Almost overnight, he was a heart-throb, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., being adaptable, kept him on board. And just like that, one-off character Illya Kuryakin was transformed into the second half of an equal partnership with Robert Vaughn’s Solo. Adhering to this slightly revised formula, the show ran from 1964 through 1968, making the jump from black and white to color and, like The Avengers across the pond, bringing a level of production value to the small screen that was far ahead of most other shows, so much so that several two-part U.N.C.L.E. episodes were edited together, fleshed out with slightly more footage, and released to movie theaters. U.N.C.L.E. fandom was through the roof, manifesting int he form of everything from lunch boxes to fan clubs, to spin-off novels and toys. But unlike Bond fandom, U.N.C.L.E. receded from popular memory and, by 2015, had been all but forgotten by everyone except the same cadre of pop art and spy fans who still carried a flame for shows like U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, Department S, and The Saint.

Which means reviving the program in feature film form was both a great and a terrible idea. Great because, being once popular but largely forgotten, seems like exactly the kind of thing we should be remaking. Terrible, because almost no one remembered it, meaning that the marquee value of the name only registered with a select few, who were also the people most likely to be cranky about any sort of updating of the show. Ritchie tries to split the difference, setting the film in the same time period as the television show but picking up the story before the story has begun, while also shooting it with the more modern, more frantic style for which he is known. For the most part, it works, trading on the tropes of Eurospy movies of the 1960s  — sex, style, exoticism, and a cultural shorthand of the 1960s as remembered in spy fantasy, rather than as they were — and mismatched buddy cop films of the 1980s — two partners who can’t stand one another but manage to get a tough job done regardless, eventually learning to respect and perhaps even like one another.

I have been a fan of the television show since I caught it in syndication back in the 1970s, but I’ve never been religious about maintaining the integrity of the source material. So I can’t say what in this big budget cinematic version might set off purists. I found nothing to offend, but other than a few tidbits thrown to fans here and there, I also didn’t find a lot that was unequivocally U.N.C.L.E. In fact, if I didn’t know better I would say this film is at least as much a remake/reboot of the Eurospy film series Kommissar X starring the mismatched international playboy private eye Jo Walker (Italian actor Tony Kendall) and straight-laced, eternally furious Captain Tom Rowland (American bodybuilder Brad Harris). Those films traded on the personality clash between the leads, treated plot as secondary to swanky sets and exotic locations, and executed the spy formula with a smirk just shy of outright spoof. In Guy Ritchie’s hands, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a spiritual, if not actual, revival of those films, albeit within the framework of and featuring characters from the Man from U.N.C.L.E. 

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are two leading men to whom I’ve never given much thought other than decided they were blandly competent. But Ritchie really brings out a charisma they’ve not been afforded a chance to showcase elsewhere, Cavill being saddled with the grim, joyless special effects spectacle Man of Steel while Hammer toiled away in the bloated misfire The Lone Ranger. As Solo and Kuryakin respectively, they shine, and part of what makes the movie fun is that neither of them is a traditional straight man. Cavill’s Solo is a sly, comedic con-man and playboy. Hammer’s Kuryakin, while presumably cast as the straight man, is actually just as maverick; a hot head with anger management issues and whose humorlessness on the job is balanced by an astounding knowledge of mod fashion. Together, they make for an engaging two-thirds of the film’s leads. The final third is Alicia Vikander, and while her role may be upstaged somewhat by her fab outfits, she holds her own.

Joining the leads are Elizabeth Debicki, relishing her role as an over-the-top femme fatale, and Hugh Grant as the man charged with attempting to wrangle all the moving pieces of the convoluted plot, a bit like a John Le Carre controller who has wandered into wacky territory. A host of stuntmen in cool mustaches and jackets fill out the  background, which eschews the sombre tinted palettes popular today in favor of more era-appropriate bright candy colors. Cavill looks resplendent in a series of exquisite suits while Hammer, playing the more dressed-for-action Kuryakin, shows how to make casual look stylish. Not surprisingly though, the film’s costuming is dominated by its leading ladies, with Vikander’s Gaby showing off a  dizzying array of gorgeous mod fashions while Debicki’s Victoria shows off outfits somewhere between Audrey Hepburn and Myrna Loy. Set it all to a truly wonderful score by Daniel Permberton which mixes typical ’60s spy jazz with spaghetti western chords and also leverages some popular songs of the time, and you have a really enjoyable, breezy spy fantasy.

2015 was a big year for spy movies, or at least a prolific year. It was dominated, predictably enough, by the release of the sprawling, operatic Spectre, the fourth film in the box office record-breaking run of Daniel Craig as James Bond. Also running in the field were Rogue Nation, the fifth in the largely entertaining Mission: Impossible franchise (that second film is the only real flaw), and The Fast and the Furious 7, which remained fully committed to that once modest franchise’s transformation into a globetrotting, high-tech super-spy series with a scope on par with the most lavish of Bond films, albeit with considerably more sleeveless white undershirts and Dickies work pants. Earlier in 2015, Kingsman: The Secret Service kicked off the year in espionage by spoofing it all in typically vulgar, juvenile Mark Millar style.

I would have enjoyed seeing more in the series, but given the weak box office, I doubt it will happen. Perhaps it was a case of a bridge too far. Perhaps it was the anonymous leading men. Perhaps it was bad timing. Whatever the case, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. failed to find an audience. A shame, really, because it’s a lot of fun. Guy Ritchie’s hectic directorial style works well with the Eurospy genre, and his eye for the style is great. It manages to capture the spirit of its source material without resorting to mimicry or mockery; and it exploits the camp appeal of spy movies with panache to spare.