When the original Man from U.N.C.L.E. tv show aired, from 1964-1968, the Cold War was a real thing. We were straight off of Kennedy’s showdown with Fidel Castro over Cuba; the Berlin Wall separated families and men and women were desperate enough to escape that they risked death to cross over; the exploits of spies weren’t just the province of books, TV and movies. We hoped that the powers that be knew what they were talking about when they told us to duck and cover under our school desks as protection against the nuclear bombs that Russia was inevitably going to send flying. Bomb shelters, Communists, the race to the Moon… and Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin were going to keep us safe.
And now, we have a fun, stylish, elegant, earnest reboot of that fun, stylish and elegant show. Henry Cavill has Solo’s tight-jawed manner of speaking down pat, and does a great job of channeling Robert Vaughn; Armie Hammer is about twice the size of David McCallum, the original Kuryakin, but works very hard to totally inhabit the part. This first film in a planned “U.N.C.L.E.” series does a decent job of setting up the premise – two diametrically opposed spies, one urbane, working for the government instead of being locked up as con man; and the other, a true believer with a surprisingly sophisticated side, are forced to work together to prevent a rogue organization from blowing up the world.
The plot is 1960s laughable, but is too much fun to find real criticism with. Before they become partners in this endeavor, Solo convinces the East German daughter (Alicia Vikander) of a missing nuclear scientist to help him find her father and stop a plot to put bombs in the hand of a beautiful Italian heiress (Elizabeth Debicki) with an agenda. Solo and Kuryakin’s respective governments decide that they would be better off working together – both of them with instructions to get the research from the scientist for their own country, even if they have to kill the other to do it.
The best parts of this film are watching the action in the background of scenes – Gaby (Vikander) dancing in her pajamas as Ilya broods; Solo enjoying a picnic lunch in a stolen truck while Ilya tries to evade the bad guys… There are parts where you’ll laugh out loud and wonder what’s wrong with you that you’re laughing.
And what’s wrong with the film? It’s not vintage enough – like the original show, it’s still set in post-WW II Europe, in 1964. But the fashions and music are much too modern to carry the mood; the technology is not current, but still looks much too 21st century to be mid-20th. Because much of the film’s audience is too young to remember nuclear threat, the Berlin Wall, the fear of Communism, too much of this film may feel like “so what?” Those of us who are little… ahem, seasoned… have a better memory of those things (hey, I was only 5 in 1964, but I read a lot of spy novels), but Guy Ritchie’s adaptation, while thoroughly stylish, never really gave the audience an understanding of why Gaby wouldn’t want to go back to East Berlin, why it was so unusual for a Russian and American to pair up. But this isn’t a drama, like movies made from John LeCarre’s excellent Cold War Smiley novels.
Hugh Grant has a very small part – the assumption one can make is that he will be a more important character in future installments of the series, but for now, you Hugh fans won’t see him until the end of the picture. Stick around for the first part of the credits. The “U.N.C.L.E.” acronym isn’t mentioned until the last seconds of the film, and character “dossiers” are shown through the beginning of the credits – pay attention to these, and you’ll be chuckling at some of the jokes you’ll now get.
Just for fun, here’s the “long opening” used in the 7th episode of the first season (1964):
Man from U.N.C.L.E. website for behind the scenes photos, fashions and more
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