The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Guy Ritchie’s Cool, Stylish, Not Entirely Satisfying Big-Screen Version of Popular TV Series

the_man_from_uncle_posterCall it James Bond’s TV Brother, and add The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to the growing list of Hollywood’s retro efforts, trip down memory lane of the 1960s thrillers that’s often cool and but not entirely satisfying.

The good thing about this big-screen version, helmed with some style and panache by British director Guy Ritchie, is that it is designed for younger viewers who may have never heard or seen the popular TV series.

A friend of mine collects old TV series and so I was able to watch a dozen episodes of the adventure of Napoleon Solo, the suave, cosmopolitan American secret agent, which actor Robert Vaughn played with great success on NBC TV series, from 1964 to 1968.

Our grade: B- (*** out of *****)

the_man_from_uncle_8_hammer_cavill_vikanderWriter Ian Fleming, still best known as the creator of James Bond, produced this character to be a small-screen version of his more famous British suave spy.  The TV series ran during the height of Sean Connery’s  Bond pictures, which began with such Cold War classics as Dr. No and From Russia with Love.

As writer and director, Ritchie pays homage in every sense of the term–good and bad–to the TV series by using the same name, same characters, and the same Cold War setting of the TV show, while enhancing (or magnifying) these elements via big budget, two estimable stars, and a bunch of special effects so that they allure–and can compete with–contemporary Hollywood action-adventures.

the_man_from_uncle_7_hammer_cavillHenry Cavill, who will reprise his 2013 role of Superman in next year’s eagerly anticipated, Batman v Superman,. opposite Ben Affleck) plays Solo, and Armie Hammer is his Russian partner Illya Kuryakin.

The movie, a strange combo of new and old, offers some promising ideas and fresh angles.  For starters, smartly the code word “U.N.C.L.E” is not to be heard.  We actually find out about its origins, how it spun off as a separate and distinctive division from the CIA, the KGB, and other international organizations, rather late in the game.

The nominal plot is rather simple and rudimentary: Our American agent is forced to team up with the KGB brute (Hammer) to find the nuclear-scientist father of a mysterious German femme (Alicia Vikander)

A word abuout the beautiful and sexy Vikander (who made a strong impact as an erotically charged sexy robot in Ex Machina and is on the verge of becoming a major star.  She is well cast as the daughter of a brilliant German rocket scientist who’s been abducted and forced to apply his skills toward some dubious goals.  She joins Solo and Kuryakin in an “arms race” (a Cold War expression) to find him.

the_man_from_uncle_6The good parts of the tale revolve around the social backgrounds of Solo and Kuryakin, how they first met as competitive enemies (rather than collaborators), assigned with the task to eliminate each other if necessary.  After all, they were on opposing sides of the political and military Cold War that defined the diplomatic relations  between the Soviet Union and the US in the Kennedy era.

Their inevitable collaboration involves encounters–and double and triple crosses–with the usual suspects of this honorable genre: Nazi fascists, Italian playboys, atom bombs scientists, honest and corrupt administrators, beautiful women (femme fatales and others).  And the plot devices rely heavily on every and any means of transportation: fast cars, speedboats, trains, and airplanes.

the_man_from_uncle_5_vikanderCavill, physically handsome but still a tad too stiff as an actor, plays the role more in the vein of Don Draper (Jon Hamm of Mad Men) than Robert Young–or Sean Connery for that matter.

Attempting a heavy Russian accent, which he does effectively if not always consistently, Hammer continues to stretch an actor  His choice of roles ever since his splash turn in The Social Network, is remarkable, revealing an actor who can be both lead and character actor–and a performer who refuses to be typecast.

the_man_from_uncle_3_cavillShowing up late in the game in a small role, Hugh Grant seems to be having fun playing a lock-jawed British spymaster, perhaps preparing the grounds for  a sequel, if this movie does well at the box-office on opening weekend.

Watching Man from U.N.C.L.E. inevitably evokes memories of the Mission Impossible series, which is far superior in every respect in successfully adapting old TV series into the zeitgeist of the present. Too bad the plot is second-hand and stitched together rather than cleverly constructed as befits its heroes and the honorable TV series.