Friday, August 14, 2015

Avoid ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’, especially if you liked the TV series

By Steve Crum
Remember the 1964-68 TV series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? If you do not, this lackluster redo bearing the same moniker might be passable entertainment. Those who liked the TV series should avoid this new take. It’s new, yes, but in no way improved. In fact, it is barely recognizable as a Man from U.N.C.L.E. template. 
In fairness, producers of the 2015 U.N.C.L.E. stress that it is “based on” the old TV series. Translated, that means the three main characters, Napoleon Solo, Illya Kuryakin and Alexander Waverly, are back for the spy ride this time around. Oh…and both versions have a matching title. Outside of Solo and Waverly being respectively American and British, and the Soviet Kuryakin, that is pretty much the similarity. Then again, both the TV series and this movie are set in the Cold War 1960’s. 
So this take is 50 years retro, going a bit further back than the TV series time frame. Solo and Kuryakin are at the outset enemies operating on respective sides of the Berlin Wall. That makes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. motion picture a prequel. 
Ian Fleming, James Bond’s creator, suggested both the Solo character as well as the overall spy concept for the TV show. Five decades later, Guy Ritchie (who also directs) and Lionel Wigram adapted the original concept into an action film that mixes action, intrigue and humor—a combo that the TV series worked well. Unfortunately, those elements don’t quite jell in this 2015 wannabe. Dialogue tries to be James Bondish tongue-in-cheek, but more often becomes awkward innuendo. Particularly notice an implied sex scene with Solo (Henry Cavill). 
Speaking of Cavill, who has recently played a stoic Superman as well as bumbling Clark Kent, his Napoleon Solo is dapperly dressed (as was Robert Vaughn in the original) and mannequin-stiff. (Vaughn was never so proper.) That is doubly bothersome because of Cavill's hunky physique. I could not help thinking of him as Clark Kent without glasses, in this case unhesitatingly hopping into bed at the drop of a negligee.  Casting another towering stud, Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin, is somewhat problematic as well. David McCallum (TV’s Illya) he is not. Then again, who would want an exact duplicate of actors? Not me. I just expected more brain than brawn here. 
The first third of the movie moves along with the enemy secret agents literally at each other’s throats over the rescue of garage mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). The plot involves both sides trying to get to her German scientist father first. Solo and Kuryakin’s reluctant teaming up occupies the second act, while by Act III, the two spies have become friends and compatriots. That is when Hugh Grant’s Mr. Waverly enters. He eventually becomes the head of the spy agency. Again, this is before the U.N.C.L.E. agency of the title has been conceived. (That stood for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement…for those taking notes.) Calling this movie The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is misleading. Naming it The Future Men from U.N.C.L.E. is probably too cumbersome, but truthful. 
It is an odd coincidence that Armie Hammer starred as the masked man in 2013’s bomb, The Lone Ranger. Not faulting Hammer, but that rehash of the radio and TV classic was skewed as well. It should have been renamed Johnny Depp’s Tonto Movie
Like the TV original, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie is not a spy spoof like Get Smart! or In Like Flint. That is a given. But a few more laughs placed in a more clever script would have helped. In addition, inserting Jerry Goldsmith’s classic TV theme, even burying it in the crawl, would have been a fitting homage for this TV codger. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: C-

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