Wednesday, August 19, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was written by Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie, and was directed by Guy Ritchie.

Wigram has been a producer for most of his career, producing several of the Harry Potter films, as well as the two recent Sherlock Holmes movies. Amazingly he also produced the classic Vanilla Ice film Cool As Ice. Talk about a checkered career! The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is his first full screenwriting assignment.

Guy Ritchie has become the master of the stylish bro-mance movie. He previously directed Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, RocknRolla, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows. He also directed the box office bomb Swept Away, starring Madonna. Eh, I guess no one can hit one out of the park every time at bat. Speaking of Madonna, Ritchie was married to her from 2000 to 2008. Eight very long years. I guess someone had to do it.

The film is of course based on the NBC TV series of the same name, which ran from 1964 to 1968. It centered on a two super spies working for the U.N.C.L.E. organization— American Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), and Russian Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). Leo G. Carroll played Alexander Waverly, the British head of the organization. Unlike other spy stories that featured a national spy service, U.N.C.L.E. was a global organization of agents from many countries.

By the way, that acronym in the title stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, which tells me that someone really, really wanted it to spell "Uncle."

Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, helped produce the series along with producer Norman Felton. In fact the series was originally going to be called Ian Fleming's Solo, but he already had a character with the same name, so various legal problems prompted a title change.

You may be wondering (as I was) why a series with two main characters was called The MAN From U.N.C.L.E. That's because as it was originally planned, the series was to focus on Napoleon Solo. Illya Kuryakin appeared in a few scenes in the pilot, and made such an impression that he was permanently added to the show. I guess it was too late to change the title after that.

The series was extremely popular, and spawned a host of imitations. It also suffered from having five different show runners over the years, each one having their own idea as to what the show was about. It started out as a standard spy program, but once the 1966 Batman TV series became popular, the show tried to ape its campy tone. This campiness peaked in the third season, which resulted in a severe ratings drop. The series made an effort to return to more serious storytelling in the fourth season, but the ratings never recovered and it was cancelled.

The episode titles all followed the same "The _______ Affair" formula, such as The Vulcan Affair or The Cherry Blossom Affair. Only one of the 105 episodes— Alexander the Greater Affair varied from this format.

Oddly enough, both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy appeared on the show in The Project Strigas Affair episode, two years before they teamed up for Star Trek. James Doohan also made multiple guest appearances.

As for the film, it was reportedly in development for over ten years, as many writers, actors and directors were attached to it at one time or another. Wow, someone REALLY wanted to make a Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie.

Tom Cruise was originally cast as Napoleon Solo, but dropped out to film Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Gosling, Ewan McGregor, Robert Pattinson, Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Michael Fassbender, Bradley Cooper, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joel Kinnaman, Russell Crowe, Chris Pine, Ryan Reynolds, George Clooney and Jon Hamm (so pretty much every leading man in Hollywood) were all at one time considered to play Solo. Henry Cavill was set to play Illya Kuryakin, but the producers decided to swap parts and have him play Solo.

Director Guy Ritchie fills the film with his trademark touches, like witty banter, convoluted plots, and split screens. Like many of his films, it's very styish, but at the expense of actual substance.

So why no Robert Vaughn or David McCallum cameos? They're both still alive and kicking. Heck, even a brief scene with the two of them in the background would have been cool. Maybe Guy Ritchie thinks cameos are too corny. 

SPOILERS FOR A MOVIE BASED ON A 1960s TV SERIES!

The Plot:
In 1963, ex-con turned CIA spy Napoleon Solo (played by Henry Cavill) infiltrates East Berlin to find a woman named Gabby Teller (played by Alicia Vikander, the robot girl in Ex Machina). Gabby's father is an ex-Nazi nuclear scientist and has gone missing, and the CIA hopes she can lead them to him.

Solo and Gabby are then relentlessly pursued by a Russian KGB agent named Illya Kuryakin (played by Armie Hammer). They manage to dodge him long enough to get over the Berlin Wall.

The next day Solo meets with Saunders, his CIA boss. Surprisingly, Kuryakin and several KGB agents are also present at the meeting. Saunders tells Solo that a group of former Nazis has captured Gabby's father Prof. Teller, and are forcing him to create their own private nuclear bomb. The CIA and KGB are so worried about this development that they've decided to put aside their differences and work together, telling Solo and Kuryakin that they're now partners.

Solo, Kuryakin and Gabby then go undercover to Rome. Gabby meets with her Uncle Rudi, who may know the whereabouts of her father. Kuryakin poses as her fiance. Solo visits a race track, and steals an invitation from a man named Waverly (played by Hugh Grant) in order to get in. Once inside, he flirts with wealthy shipping heiress Victoria Vinciguerra.

Suspecting Victoria, Solo and Kuryakin separately break into her shipping yard and reluctantly agree to work together. Inside they find traces of uranium, confirming their suspicions that Victoria is involved in the bomb plot.

The next day, Gabby meets with Uncle Rudi while Kuryakin monitors their conversation. Gabby appears to betray the two agents to Rudi, forcing Kuryakin to flee. Meanwhile, Solo meets with Victoria. She drugs him, and he wakes up strapped to an electric chair in an underground bunker. Rudi is standing before him, revealing that he was an infamous Nazi interrogator, and begins torturing Solo. Kuryakin shows up at the last minute, rescuing Solo and killing Rudi.

Gabby is then taken to Victoria's private island, where she meets her father. He's almost finished building the nuclear bomb for Victoria. The minute it's complete, she shoots him dead. Victoria then places the bomb in her boat and flees the island.

Solo and Kuryakin are picked up by Waverly, who's really a British agent. He tells them that Gabby has been secretly working for him for several years, and that the CIA and KGB nearly ruined their operation to find her father. Solo and Kuryakin manage to rescue Gabby.

The three agents, plus Waverly, regroup onboard a British warship. Solo contacts Victoria, and tricks her into revealing her location. He gives the coordinates to Waverly, and the ship launches a missile, which destroys Victoria, her boat and her nuclear bomb, saving the world.

Waverly then informs Solo and Kuryakin that they're now working under him in a new organization called U.N.C.L.E., and they've got a new mission in Istanbul.

Thoughts:
• I thought it was a great idea to keep the film in the 1960s Cold War setting. It's practically a love letter to the 1960s spy film genre. Trying to update it to the present day would have completely changed the tone, and just wouldn't have been the same.

• Unlike most TV to movie transitions, this one actually takes its subject matter seriously and doesn't try to turn it into a lame comedy. There are a few humorous moments, but nothing too over the top.

• This is basically an origin story, telling us how Solo and Kuryakin became partners. That's an interesting way to go, but not necessarily a good one. Audiences presumably want to see the two leads trading quips and good-naturedly ribbing one another, as they each boast about their respective countries. That's kind of hard to do when they don't actually team up until two thirds of the way through the movie. In fact, Kuryakin spends most of the film partnered with Gabby.

It might have worked better to have skipped the origin and jumped right into a typical U.N.C.L.E. adventure.

• Henry Cavill seems much less stiff here than he was in Man Of Steel, but he's still not quite charming enough to be a convincing international gentleman spy. In fact I might go so far as to say he's bland. Compare him to Colin Firth's awesomely suave Agent Galahad in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Now HE was a gentleman spy!

I was definitely surprised to see Armie Hammer in a big budget Hollywood movie again. I was sure his turn as The Lone Ranger a couple of years ago had torpedoed his career. Unfortunately the stoic Illya Kuryakin role doesn't give him a whole lot to do, emoting-wise.

• The production design and location shooting are awesome, perfectly evoking the early 1960s. Who wouldn't want to live in a world like that, wining and dining along the Riviera with the jet-set?

• I'm not a fan of Kuryakin's one defining trait. Supposedly he has some sort of clinically diagnosed Hulk-like temper. Whenever he's insulted or provoked, he's barely able to control this savage berserker rage.

Every time this happened in the film, all I could think of was Marty McFly and his anger at being called a "chicken."

• Man, that is one butt ugly movie poster! Look at that eye-searing thing! I think maybe they were trying to go for a 1960s pop-art look, but they failed miserably. For one thing, posters of that era were usually drawn or painted, not cobbled together from various mismatched photographs.

Hey, movie poster designers! Did you know there are ways to create a poster that don't involve Photoshop?

• Saunders tells Solo and Kuryakin they're going to be partners, while sitting in an open-air cafe, surrounded by tables full of similarly suited men. When Saunders gets up to leave, all these other men do as well, implying they're rival spies who were eavesdropping.

OK, so it was a funny scene, but story-wise it makes absolutely no sense. There's no way the head of the freaking CIA would ever discuss state secrets so openly and loudly in such a public setting.

• The film has a light, breezy tone similar to the TV series and 1960s spy films in general. It takes a surprisingly dark turn though, when Solo is captured and tortured by Rudi. He's strapped into an electric chair and realistically and uncomfortably shocked to the point where his body or clothing or both actually begin smoldering! Jesus Christ! That certainly escalated quickly! Why not water board him while you're at it too?

• All through the film, Solo and Kuryakin use various high tech gadgets and doodads to pick locks, cut through fences and bug rooms. Surprisingly, Kuryakin's Russian tech is shown to be highly superior to Solo's.

That's an interesting twist. For decades now, movies have portrayed Russian technology as bulky and primitive. So which is it? Was 1960s Russia technologically ahead of the U.S. or not?

• Many of Ritchie's British gangster films feature very intricate and convoluted plots, to the point where I usually give up trying to follow them and just watch the pretty pictures. Fortunately this one is pretty easy to understand.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is long on style, short on actual substance. If you like director Guy Ritchie's other bro-mance buddy films, you'll probably like this one as well. I give it a B-.

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