For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing about The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a high-concept spy show that briefly became a pop culture sensation in the mid-‘60s. The show lasted for only 3 ½ seasons, falling from favor almost as quickly as it rose, and since its cancellation in 1968, the franchise has remained quiet. But that all changed this past weekend with the release of the new film adaptation, and I’m pleased to say that, while the Guy Ritchie film is not exactly a life-changing event, the movie actually works quite well.
To be honest, this comes as a bit of a surprise. Most efforts at adapting TV shows into movies have resulted in missteps, spoofs, and abominations. For every Mission: Impossible or The Fugitive there are a dozen films like I Spy, The Wild, Wild West, or Starsky & Hutch—movies that make a joke of the original concept. Strangely enough, even absurd sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Brady Bunch—programs that were designed to provoke laughter—get transformed into spoofs when they go to the movies. What makes this sub-genre of the adapted television show particularly dubious is not that the original shows were brilliant—most them them weren’t—but rather that most of the movies actually aim lower, going only for the easiest of laughs while riding the coattails of their pre-existing franchise.
Given this history, and the fact that the original Man from U.N.C.L.E. often struggled to live up to its potential, there was every reason to believe that the new film would be yet another smash-and-grab job with a few obvious jokes and a quick payout for all involved. But fortunately, the filmmakers don’t appear to have the same level of contempt for the source material that so many of these other half-baked adaptations have demonstrated. Instead, Ritchie and company have clearly invested themselves in the movie, and, while not perfect, their efforts succeed far more often than they fail.
Perhaps the best and most surprising decision was to set the film in 1963. With the exception of the last two X-Men movies, hardly any summer action movies are set in the past, but The Man from U.N.C.L.E. revels in its setting. The opening credits feature a montage of newspaper headlines with references to John F. Kennedy and the Cold War, while Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What” plays on the soundtrack. The song is anachronistic—it was recorded in 1969 for Flack’s first album—but it perfectly catches the cool vibe of 2:00 am in a quiet ‘60’s jazz club. And Ritchie makes excellent use of Solomon Burke’s sublime “Cry to Me” in one of the least plausible but most charming scenes in the movie. Most of the remaining soundtrack is original, but you’d be hard pressed to tell. Daniel Pemberton perfectly captures the spirit of ‘60’s movie composers like Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, and Ennio Morricone.
Ritchie brings his typical visual flair to the proceedings, using lots of rapid editing and closeups of mechanical objects in motion. I’ve never been a huge fan of Ritchie’s aesthetic. The visual flourishes in his Sherlock Holmes films always struck me as gimmicky—poor attempts to modernize the Victorian setting—but his self-conscious visual style suits the ‘60’s spy genre quite well, as does the deliberately retro use of split screens and wipes to document one of the action sequences. In a lot of ways, the original show was crying out for this type of visual flair and sophisticated soundtrack.
The other refreshing element of the movie is that it’s … messy, for lack of a better word. Unlike many Hollywood blockbusters, this movie doesn’t feel like it was written, directed, and produced by a corporate committee or the marketing department. There is a reckless, devil-may-care approach to the filmmaking that makes it distinct.
Take the casting, for example. Jared Harris, son of the legendary Irish actor, Richard Harris, plays the gruff and very American head of the CIA. Another British actor, Henry Cavill, plays the quintessential American spy, Napoleon Solo, while the all-American Armie Hammer plays the iconic Russian, Illya Kuryakin, and the Swedish actress, Alicia Vikander, plays a German. When Hugh Grant shows up as the British head of U.N.C.L.E., it feels like a mistake. Was Gerard Depardieu unavailable?
Yet, this counter-intuitive, haphazard approach to casting gives the film a garage-band feel that’s actually quite refreshing. According to legend, when he was with the Beatles, John Lennon used to set one of his guitar strings slightly out of tune in order to isolate the sound so his aunt back home could distinguish his playing. With The Man from U.N.C.L.E., many of the elements are slightly out of tune—just enough to keep the audience aware that they are watching a constructed film rather than a homogenized studio product. The movie may only be the equivalent of a cheeseburger, but it’s definitely not a Big Mac.
And despite the many action sequences—including an especially inventive escape from East Berlin—The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains a character-driven film. In fact, since the movie is set one year before the show first aired, it fleshes out both Solo and Kuryakin, giving each of them a backstory and altering their personalities as well.
On the original show, Napoleon Solo was a bit of a problem character. Designed in part by Ian Fleming, Solo was heavily indebted to James Bond. He was witty, well-tailored, resourceful, and flirtatious. However, Robert Vaughn often smoothed away the edge both Fleming and Sean Connery gave to Bond. Vaughn was great at conveying intelligence and charm, but he could also come across more like the branch manager of your local bank than a deadly international spy.
Cavill demonstrates many of the same traits, but he eliminates the Vaughn twinkle in the eye. Cavill’s Solo is often absurd but humorless, and Ritchie adds a backstory that owes as much to Leslie Charteris’ the Saint as it does to 007. As a result, rather than being a charming and lovable rogue, Solo emerges as somewhat cold and enigmatic—so aloof he’s barely present. And due to Armie Hammer’s size, Kuryakin becomes a bit of a bruiser—the kind of guy who can rip the lid off an automobile trunk. David McCallum’s Kuryakin was very much a figure of the ‘60s—cool stoicism in a black turtleneck—but Hammer’s version is full of rage, often barely containing his violent temper. Once they learn to cooperate, Kuryakin’s intensity and Solo’s detachment make for a nice balance.
The other nice thing about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is that unlike many franchise films, Ritchie has demonstrated lots of patience. He doesn’t try to cram every element into the two hours. Instead, the story is remarkably focused. It introduces us to the major characters, but the U.N.C.L.E. organization is only mentioned at the film’s conclusion. We never see the famed headquarters, and the enemy organization, THRUSH, isn’t mentioned at all. Ritchie seems happy to develop the characters, hint at a new addition to the team, and establish the tone.
For a two-hour movie with this kind of panache, that’s more than enough.