The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Big screen reboot of the hit '60s spy show.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris

"If you're a fan of the original show, there's much to infuriate about this new interpretation. I understand the movie has to appeal to as large an audience as possible, and rightly so, but the film seems to go out of its way to distance itself from its source."

Star Trek. The Fugitive. The Twilight Zone. The Prisoner. The Outer Limits. Anyone old enough to even catch the '90s reruns of these shows will tell you the '60s was the true golden age of TV. Add into the mix The Man from UNCLE, initially devised as a small screen James Bond cash-in but eventually finding its own groove and becoming one of the decade's most memorable shows. Several attempts have been made to bring UNCLE to the big screen, with names like Tom Cruise, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh previously attached, and now it's finally found its way to the multiplex under the direction of Guy Ritchie, who also shares a co-writing credit with Lionel Wigram.
The movie keeps the '60s setting of the original show, albeit a couple of years earlier than the show's 1964 debut, with JFK still alive and in the Whitehouse, but yet again we're given an origin story we could really live without. The series simply dropped us into the fully formed United Network Command for Law and Enforcement with Robert Vaughn's Napoleon Solo and David McCallum's Illya Kuryakin already amicable partners. Ritchie's film begins with CIA agent Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB stiff Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) on opposing sides (the Cold War was never mentioned in the '60s show, with the focus on an enemy force named THRUSH). The two are forced to team-up to protect East German defector Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) and take down a mysterious organisation run by one of the models from Blow Up (Elizabeth Debicki).
If you're a fan of the original show (and, frankly, how could you not be?), there's much to infuriate about this new interpretation. I understand the movie has to appeal to as large an audience as possible, and rightly so, but the film seems to go out of its way to distance itself from its source. We hear a grand total of two seconds of Jerry Goldsmith's iconic theme tune, and it's actively mocked, as Solo switches between channels on a car radio. The famous communicators are never produced. We never hear the phrase "Open Channel D!". Cavill makes for a convincing Solo, and Hugh Grant is perfect as Section Chief Alexander Waverly, but Kuryakin has been transformed from a svelte, melancholy mastermind to a big dumb brute, ballet dancer to bodybuilder. THRUSH is notably absent. We get no glimpse of UNCLE HQ or its famous secret entrance through Del Floria's tailor shop. Gadgets are nowhere to be seen. The only reference to the original show that will please fans involves the notorious faulty wiring of a villain's torture device. Basically we have a random '60s set spy movie with a recognisable brand name slapped on it.
So is that random '60s set spy movie any good in its own right? Well, yes, it's not half bad. Ritchie is a filmmaker I've had a lot of trouble with in the past, thanks to his irritating, overly showy directing style, but I have to commend his work here. Ritchie has finally ditched his slo-mo obsession, replacing it with well staged and coherent action, and he employs the zoom lens in a striking manner that's somewhere between Alan Rudolph and Jess Franco.
That said, there's not a whole lot of action on display. The movie is quite daring in this regard, though some mainstream viewers may come away feeling short-changed, having been spoiled by the Mission Impossible franchise; you're not going to see Henry Cavill hanging off a jet here. The movie's best moment has a key action scene play offscreen, only partially glimpsed as a reflection on the windscreen of a truck, inside of which Solo casually enjoys a sandwich and a glass of red wine. A third act raid on a villain's lair is dispensed with in a quick Thomas Crown Affair style split screen montage. In an age of overblown and overlong superhero climaxes, this is very refreshing, and ballsy as hell.