Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

OK, out there, quick show of hands: how many of you were fans of the original 1960s TV series? Bonus question: how many of you remember the episode with super-spy Napoleon Solo doing the Watusi with a gorilla? (I’m not making that up.)

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Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in the original TV series

The cinematic sixties belonged to Ian Fleming’s James Bond, beginning with Dr. No in 1962. A spate of TV spy series followed; one of the most successful and iconic was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-68). Indeed, it was Fleming, supposedly, who proposed the name “Napoleon Solo” (he did have a way with character names, didn’t he?). Though a bit campy in spots, U.N.C.L.E. picked up the 007 gadgets-and-girls formula and attempted to be a reasonably serious spy drama until they lost their way in the third season (reference the aforementioned gorilla). They lasted one more season and were gone.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Solo and Kuryakin
Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Solo and Kuryakin

The origin story for U.N.C.L.E. (that’s the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, in case you were wondering) is up for grabs, and director/co-writer Guy Ritchie has fun with it. But this film is more of an homage to Bond and the sixties than it is to U.N.C.L.E.

The characters, for example, have been thoroughly reimagined. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) gives us a much brawnier version of Solo, a dapper and urbane international thief forced to work for the CIA or go to prison. He does everything — from safecracking to womanizing — with an overconfident, matter-of-fact detachment, as if it were all a slightly boring game. On television, Solo’s Russian counterpart, Illya Kuryakin, was taciturn and philosophical. As embodied by Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), however, Kuryakin grows nearly a foot taller, gains a faux Russian accent, tries to stop speeding cars with his bare hands, and gets twitchy and violent when he’s mad. Talk about your anger issues.

The plot is standard and straightforward: the bad guys have an atomic bomb and will take over the world unless we stop them. The CIA sends Solo to East Berlin to extract Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina), a feisty auto mechanic who happens to be the daughter of a missing German rocket scientist. Daddy, it seems, is in the clutches of Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), an Italian socialite with fascist sympathies. The CIA wants Gaby to help them find her father and the warhead he is being forced to create.

But the KGB wants Gaby too, and sends in Kuryakin. Solo and Gaby barely escape. And to everyone’s consternation, the higher-ups make Solo and Kuryakin temporary partners to fulfill the mission. This is Spy vs. Spy meets The Odd Couple:  the two bicker about everything, from gadgetry to women’s fashion, and derisively call each other “The Red Peril” and “Cowboy.”

With the CIA and the KGB involved, can MI-5 be left out? Apparently not. A plot twist involving a double-cross brings us Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant), who ends up in charge of the operation, and eventually, of the newly-formed international organization that will come to be known as U.N.C.L.E.

Again, there’s more of Bond than U.N.C.L.E. here, including the stereotypical climax in which troops are called in to storm the bad guys’ island hideout (though with some rather U.N.C.L.E.ish looking weapons, I noticed). But even that familiar scene is given a new look. Ritchie works hard at giving us a stylish period piece that celebrates the sixties — albeit minus Kuryakin’s original Beatle cut.

U.N.C.L.E. delivers an engaging and tongue-in-cheek blend of action, humor, and sixties cool, against a lushly filmed globe-trotting backdrop. Vikander does a decent job as Gaby, and as Bond-worthy villainess Victoria, Debicki seems to relish her role, coming across as a malevolently depraved Audrey Hepburn. Separately, Solo and Kuryakin are a bit one-dimensional, but the chemistry between them is enjoyable as they learn to work together instead of killing each other. One hopes to see their characters and relationship develop a bit in future installments.

Who knows: maybe The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. won’t be far behind. (Note to casting directors: Evangeline Lilly is nearly a ringer for Stefanie Powers.) But please, would somebody bring back the little pocket communicators? Open channel D.

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Parental advisory: compared to more serious films in the espionage genre, the level of violence and rude language is mild (i.e., there’s plenty of mayhem but no gore). There is one scene in which the back of a topless woman is shown as she walks away, and the sexual tension between Gaby and Kuryakin is suggested but unconsummated.

There is, however, one particularly objectionable sequence. Solo is being tortured by an ex-Nazi who loves inflicting pain. He has kept a black-and-white scrapbook of his victims, and intends to devote a whole page to Solo, in full color. He will, of course, get his comeuppance. But the scene plays out as a joke — and against the weightiness of the themes it touches, the joke is particularly tasteless.