"THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E." SHOULD EXCITE THE SPY IN US
While I am writing this, the US box office figures for the cinematic incarnation of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” don’t seem to be very flourishing. On the other hand, in Russia Warner’s marketing wave for this film is having more effect. The opening weekend there is better than “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”. What does it tell us? That it usually is a bumpy affair for 1960’s spy TV-series to make its first big screen appearance. “Mission: Impossible” is perhaps the only successful example. “The Avengers”, “The Saint”, “Get Smart” and “I Spy” however never got their sequels.
By: Gert Waterink
Having mentioned these failed cinematic incarnations, I think it’s safe to say that “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” trumps those. It’s a good film, not a masterpiece, but certainly one that wets the spy fan’s appetite for at least one more sequel.
The movie starts off with a lovely Hitchcock-ian main title sequence that instantly brings us back to the 1960’s. And while the imagery of Cold War events seems rather serious, Roberta Flack’s song “Compared To What” adds a nice fresh, happy touch to it (Why did she never sing a Bond theme song?). It sets the tone of the film: Light and breezy. The passport control at Checkpoint Charlie for Ian Fleming’s Napoleon Solo therefore becomes an easy, simple and suave affair.
With a Roger Moore esque flair Mr Solo has the task of succesfully executing the defection of Gaby Teller, daughter of an ex-Nazi, East-German rocket scientist. Soon we get caught up in a great, perhaps the greatest action sequence of the entire film, as Napoleon and his ‘girl’ are being chased in a Wartburg (great East-German car) by a big angry 6ft 5 tall Russian KGB-operative. The car chase between the Wartburg and the Trabant is lovely edited and choreographed, reminding us of the days when Remy Julienne was in charge of a wonderful car chase ballet (Think about the 2CV from “For Your Eyes Only” or the Renault 11 from “A View To A Kill”).
After Teller has been safely brought into West-Germany, we know that Solo was in fact on a covert mission for the CIA. And after a great, rather brutal fight scene in a Berlin park toilet (reminiscent of the “Casino Royale” PTS), we get to know that the previous large henchman is in fact Illya Kuryakin and that Solo and Kuryakin are in fact being teamed up. But here starts an important flaw of the film. The story. The CIA and the KGB are after a shipping magnate and Teller’s uncle, who seem to be creating an atomic bomb.
It would have been nicer if for plot purposes some mystery was attached to this part of the film. Doesn’t it feel rather lacklustre if you know exactly what your favourite spy is after very early on in the film? I felt that way. In a Bond film we are usually left a bit more clueless until the 2nd half of the film, when an 'Auric Goldfinger' or 'Ernst Blofeld' starts explaining his grand scheme to 007. It’s something that a possible sequel should and can do better.
Because now a lot of time had to be spend on re-introducing the characters Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. For this reboot/revival movie it was at times a bit necessary though. There never was a real good proper background history on the characters. And since no younger audience has heard of “U.N.C.L.E.”, the original TV Series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” didn’t age as well as, let’s say, “Mission: Impossible” or “Hawaii Five O”. Furthermore, the series was always rather tongue-in-cheek, campy and light. So was the entire spy craze of the mid 1960’s anyway.
Only recently we got to know edgier, more serious spy TV series, like “24”, “Alias”, “The Americans” and “Homeland”. So it would have been a hard task anyway to bring back “U.N.C.L.E.” to the big screen. And setting the thin storyline in the 1960’s (It as a bit weird to see a dark-red 1966 Aston Martin DB6 showing up in the year 1963), was perhaps therefore a wise thing to do. Still, time was lost on writing a good written plot and story with a proper dose of spy-mystery.
Also, certain cinematographical and editorial choices were rather tiresome. One wants to see the real action, not a lacklustre summary of all the action in a split-screen format. Looks nice, but it’s unnecessary.
Still, the movie holds up pretty well. Henry Cavill plays a real charming and funny womanizer (read: some Roger Moore-esque flair). He lacks emotional content, but seeing him tortured by Nazi Rudi in an electric chair brings about his vulnerabilities. And the scene where he kills Vinciguerra's lover Alexander in cold blood in the rain is particularly strong. But in my opinion seeing Armie Hammer as the more emotionally troubled Kuryakin (read: some Daniel Craig-esque flair) working together with Alicia Vikander’s Gaby Teller was the acting highlight of the film. Like a true “Pussy with Galore” she knows how to jump on Kuryakin. The kitty knows how to melt Illya’s cold Syberian heart. It’s as if we see Vesper Lynd and James Bond throwing pillows again. It adds a nice amount of romance to the film.
During the 2nd half of the film, Illya and Napoleon tend to get along better, and the film evolves in a buddy film. Now they can finally focus on their biggest task: Eliminating Victoria Vinciguerra’s diabolical plan to detonate an atomic bomb from a submarine off the Italian coast. And with her is travelling that poodle of an Italian lover Alexander. It is Vinciguerra who is pulling the strings, and she does remind us of femme fatales like Fiona Volpe. She gets her best scene when she’s shooting down Teller’s father Udo….in a cruel, cold blooded way.
Director Guy Ritchie did put a lot of James Bond references in this film. Like his buddy Matthew Vaughn (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”), he must have been extensively studying recent –and classic- Bond films. Like the earlier mentioned examples, there are some other nice references. There’s a nice scene where Victoria Vinciguerra tries to find proof that Napoleon Solo is not in his hotel room and instead doing some extensive research on her shipping yard. But just as Victoria opens the door, Solo is just narrowly able to sneek back in his hotel room and puts on his bathrobe. A scene that is reminiscent of “A View To A Kill”. Even the hotel room door has a Bond reference: number ‘304’. Which was the same hotel room number 007 had in “Thunderball”. And during the party at the Monza Race Circuit, Solo encounters a playboy-ish Count Lippe. Indeed, the character from “Thunderball”. And finally, when Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin try to open the big, chrome-coloured safe door inside Vinciguerra’s shipyard, you can’t help thinking that Ken Adam (“Goldfinger”) is greatly missed.
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is far from perfect. But the film is charming and an example of perfect visual craftsmanship. Technically, it’s a pure reboot, but style-wise it’s more of a revival film that stays close to the original style of the light-hearted, campy TV-series. And besides the flaws in the story, every scene gets helped tremendously by lavish production design (Oliver Scholl), a great costume designer (Joanna Johnston) and a magnificent retro-soundtrack full of memorable melodies (Daniel Pemberton). The music especially highlights the relationship between Illya Kuryakin and Gaby Teller. And I could see it being shortlisted for the Oscars in the category “Best Original Score”.
At the end of the film we also get to see how Waverly (charismatically played by Hugh Grant) got the inspiration for the acronym “U.N.C.L.E.”. Just watch the end titles closely and you will find out. Let’s hope Warner will green-light a sequel, despite the mixed box office earnings so far. The characters have been rebooted, so now a 2nd U.N.C.L.E.-film can focus more on a better, more thrilling, exciting story.
3.5 out of 5 stars / 7.0 out of 10
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Aangezien ik in Spanje woon en veel contact hebmet Amerikaanse fans van de originele serie, heb ik de film vorige week al kunnen zien. Dit is mijn recensie....in het Engels. Er zitten wat milde spoilers in, maar dat is altijd zo met recensies: