Saturday, August 15, 2015

Some Thoughts About the New “U.N.C.L.E.”

While I usually eschew the official openings of films, the debut of director Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. provoked me to shed that resistance. Hearing that the premiere might draw a smaller crowd than I would have feared, my wife and I went yesterday to an afternoon showing. Although the movie will almost surely disappoint U.N.C.L.E. purists, we found it entertaining, for a number of reasons:

British actor Henry Cavill, as nattily attired American spy Napoleon Solo, must have spent a good deal of time watching the 1964-1968 NBC-TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., on which this movie was based, for he has original star Robert Vaughn’s sophisticated, calm-under-pressure style down pat.

Armie Hammer’s Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin, is far more of a blunt instrument here than David McCallum’s Kuryakin ever was in the series. I knew going into the theater that this movie had tweaked the protagonists’ back stories a bit, but I didn’t expect Hammer’s KGB operative to have such anger issues. If there’s an U.N.C.L.E sequel--as the picture’s closing suggests there will be--I hope Kuryakin’s fast-burning inclination toward violence can be tamed a bit.

Twenty-six-year-old Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who portrays Gaby Teller, the daughter of a missing German scientist, is the most magnetic element of Ritchie’s U.N.C.L.E., whether she’s driving madly through the back streets of Cold War Berlin, dancing by herself in a hotel room, or betraying her colleagues. It’s no wonder that Kuryakin, who’s only supposed to be passing himself off in this story as her fiancé, takes a break from his fighting to actually fall for her.

Both Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki, who plays the seductive but villainous Victoria Vinciguerra, imbue their characters with a great deal of power. It’s nice to see women as commanding figures in spy fiction, breaking as it does certain egregious traditions.

Anyone who’s seen Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) or its sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), will recognize his storytelling habits in U.N.C.L.E. This is especially true when it comes to the often-antagonistic relationship between Solo and Kuryakin (Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr. John Watson also had their contretemps) and the way he rolls through a scene, only to come back to that same scene soon afterward for a second look revealing events that viewers missed the first go-round.

The GQ magazine critic who complained that “very little in the way of action takes place” in U.N.C.L.E. must have seen a different movie than I did. Maybe this is a generational thing, and she’s younger, more accustomed to films that try hard to imitate video games; but for my money, there were plenty of fights, chases, and other fireworks.

Like the TV show before it, Ritchie’s motion picture leavens its dramatic elements with humor--again, also familiar from his Sherlock Holmes tales. Not to give too much away, but I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Solo and Kuryakin debate the fate of a confirmed criminal, while fate intervenes to relieve them of reaching a decision.

• English composer Daniel Pemberton’s score gives The Man from U.N.C.L.E. an elegant period feel, without relying too heavily on actual 1960s music selections. Then again, I would have enjoyed some Dean Martin or Sam Cooke tracks. The trailers include a version of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse song “Feeling Good” that was absent from the movie itself. Too bad.

My only other thought as I watched the end credits roll through was, “Where were Robert Vaughn and David McCallum”? Both actors are still alive and working. Surely, Guy Ritchie could have found them minor but recognizable cameo roles in this new picture. Perhaps it’s something to consider for the sequel.

READ MORE:Miscellaneous Notes About the U.N.C.L.E. Movie” and “Final Thoughts About the U.N.C.L.E. Film,” by Bill Koenig (The Spy Command); “6 Reasons The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Was the Coolest Spy Show of the ’60s,” by Brent DiCrescenzo (The MeTV Monitor); “Catching Up with Robert Vaughn, the Original Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” by Jeff Labrecque (Entertainment Weekly); “Cry U.N.C.L.E.,” by Max Allan Collins; “Man from U.N.C.L.E. by Ritchie & Wigram and Kleeman & Wilson,” by Andrew Cartmel (Narrative Drive); “Swingin’ Sixties: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” by Justin Cummings (Critics at Large).


pattinase (abbott) said...

I have seen Vikander in three films now and she is a real find.

Warner Todd Huston said...

I very much enjoyed the movie. Here is my review...

Gerald So said...

I actually like that Vaughn and McCallum weren't given minor roles in the movie. I feel the way Sam Mendes felt planning the role of Skyfall caretaker for Sean Connery but ultimately deciding he couldn't *demote* a former James Bond to a minor role in a Bond movie, and the role went instead to Albert Finney.

Kathy Norton said...

HC deiberately never watched a single episode of the series. AH on the other hand, bought the DVD set and watched most of it. HC did a great job, and he wore his suits far better than RV ever did. But nobody can wear a tux like RV as NS!

Barry Ergang said...

A Philadelphia radio news station's reviewer's take:

Bob said...

This was one of those films I was hoping to like but came away disappointed. Being a Holmes 'purist' I did enjoy Ritchie's Holmes films, so I expected variations, however I just found the film dull. Like the Cruise M.I. films, I wish they could make these films and just not reference them back to the tv series.

Unkletom said...

I see the original U.N.C.L.E. as television's answer to James Bond movies. In that respect, the new U.N.C.L.E. compared poorly in that its action was nowhere near as fast-paced and compelling as is seen in any Bond movie. That said, I still experienced a wave of nostalgia as I could instantly relate to the characters and their personalities.

Bottom line: The upside is that it reminded me of the TV show. It had all the elements that I enjoyed while watching it as a kid. The downside is that it reminded me of the TV show, only longer. Stretching a one hour plot into two hours does not make it better. This is a lesson that the makers of Star Trek learned the hard way.

Graham Powell said...

This is one of the few movies I've seen in a long time where I really hoped there would be a sequel.