The original series “The Man From UNCLE” was supposed to be TV’s answer to James Bond. It did boast some formidable guest stars, including Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Steve McQueen, Yvonne de Carlo, and John Carradine, and featured scripts by writers like Robert Towne and Harlan Ellison. As it went on, though, it slipped more and more into a parody of the genre, with campy villains and over-the-top stories. However, it was in competition with “Batman” and there was no way it could out-camp the caped crusader, so it vanished from the airwaves.
Now it has become another early TV show remade for the big screen, always a risky proposition. For every The Fugitive or Get Smart, you have several Dark Shadows, Lost in Space, or Starsky and Hutch level movies. It’s hit-or-miss, with a lot more misses than hits. Fortunately for The Man From UNCLE, Guy Ritchie was both in the director’s chair and collaborated on the script (with Lionel Wigram, who also produced with Ritchie, working from a story by Jeff Kleeman and David C. Wilson). Ritchie knows how to blend humor and adventure, as he proved with Snatch and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes. The story is set in the early 1960s, when the Cold War almost went hot, and Ritchie mines the history and the visuals of that time beautifully.
The characters of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin are fleshed out a bit more than they ever were in the series. Solo (Henry Cavill) isn’t just a secret agent but also a thief who’s working for the CIA rather than sitting in jail – which basically makes this a remake of “It Takes a Thief” as well. In contrast Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a straight-laced and lethally strong KGB agent al a Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love, but played for comedy rather than menace.
In the opening sequence, the two are antagonists as Solo seeks to extricate a young female car mechanic named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin. Gaby’s important because her father, a nuclear physicist, has gone missing, and the CIA wants her help to find him. Solo manages the extraction with a great deal of daring do mixed with suavity, leaving Kuryakin embarrassed and itching for revenge. The next morning Solo and his boss have a meeting at a West Berlin café – with Kuryakin and his handler. The two spy agencies have decided to work together to stop an independent group led by the Italian heiress Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) from getting their hands on an A-Bomb. After a rough introduction, Solo, Kuryankin, and Gaby head for Italy.
Cavill handles the role of the charming rogue/ruthless spy with aplomb, and can throw away a line with the best of them. Hammer must be thankful for a role that will make moviegoers forget about The Lone Ranger, and he’s a great foil for Cavill while still excelling at the physical demands of the role. Vikander and Debicki both look like they stepped out of an early 1960’s movie directed by Fellini or De Sica, though they’re both better actresses than models from that era. Vikander has passion and fire, while Debicki plays an ice queen on the surface though hot-blooded beneath.
There are as many wise cracks being shot off during the film as there are bullets, but it never slips into parody like the original series. The edge of danger keeps the plot and the quips under control. Special kudos must go to production designer Oliver Scholl and costume designer Joanna Johnston. They perfectly present the early 1960’s world with the sets and costumes.
While it doesn’t transcend its roots as The Fugitive did, The Man from UNCLE does improve on the original rather than just packaging it as nostalgia. It also works as a decent spy adventure, and there are enough twists and turns to make it a fun ride that’s worth the trip.