A mounting complaint about Hollywood movies lately is the endless parade of sequels, remakes, and reboots. People attest that Hollywood is out of original ideas when they see a list of planned retreads the size of the 144-title one on the website Den of Geek. This very writer attests right back that inspiration has to come from somewhere and it always comes from previously published or created works, whether we’re talking about novels, plays, operas, short stories, comic books, religious scripture, mythology, or other classical works from across the centuries. Honestly, that’s par for the course.
However, when something is good enough, remakes aren’t necessary. Classics should be left classic. In the wrong hands and with the wrong intentions, something classic gets turned into something its not with modernization. Take something like Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise skirting 20-30 years of updating to screw with things compared to the 50-year-plus continuous and gradual evolution of James Bond with the shifting modern times. One works and one doesn’t. Looks are always going to change, but the goal of any remake should be to keep the tone and essence of what made it classic, whether that’s F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Shakespeare, or Spider-Man.
With that in mind, we arrive at Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Based on the 1964-1968 TV series that ran on NBC starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, few would call it a seminal classic. More would call it a nice time capsule. Modernization of the old school spy genre from a generation ago has been done before and plenty. The likes of Ethan Hunt in “Mission: Impossible,” the “Bourne” trilogy based on Robert Ludlum’s works, and Maxwell Smart of “Get Smart” have all gotten their modern makeover while James Bond gets reinvented with each new actor portraying the character.
Some are faithful and some blaze their own trail. Because of the box office clout of Bond and Hunt and plenty of failed imitators in between, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and its small stature roots already have difficulty standing out as a ripe property for viable franchise possibilities. It would have to hit on its own unique style to succeed and stand out. Ritchie’s film does exactly that to be an easy and breezy companion to the foreboding likes of Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, and James Bond. If you feel the spy game has gotten too ominous over the years, slide over to “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and have a good time.
“Man of Steel” hunk Henry Cavill plays Napoleon Solo, a reformed professional thief now working as a decadent American secret agent in 1963. He is working to extradite a key asset named Gaby Teller, played by “Ex Machina” discovery Alicia Vikander, from East Berlin to the allied side of West Berlin. Solo crosses paths with the relentless and tough KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer of “J. Edgar” and “The Lone Ranger”), who puts up quite a fight of opposition before Solo and Gaby get away.
Teller is the daughter of a former Nazi scientist who’s being held by a criminally-minded shipping company front controlled by the ruthless tycoon Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki of “The Great Gatsby”). Her plans are you use Gaby’s father to build a personal nuclear weapon. That imposing development resonates for both Napoleon and Illya’s government agencies. In uneasy circumstances, their respective superiors (including previous Ritchie collaborator Jared Harris) assign Solo and Kuryakin to join forces and work together to stop this nuclear threat, using Gaby as their inside girl. Their styles naturally clash between Solo’s smoothness and Kuryakin’s indomitable temper. Observing all of this is Alexander Waverly (the perfectly cast Hugh Grant), a British man of interest who is a business associate of the Vinciquerra network. Ritchie’s film acts as an origin story and prequel of sorts to how the U.N.C.L.E. program got started where the Americans, Brits, and Russians started working together against common Cold War enemies while watching their back against each other.
In true spy movie fashion, the twists, turns, double crosses, and double agents pepper in nicely beside lavish locations, smooth style, and cunning action sequences. There is rarely a dull moment in this movie treatment and the prerequisite eye candy is present for both genders. Call him a “Ken” doll on the outside all you want, but Henry Cavill is at the top of his game for action, sexiness, and coy intrigue. This is his cup of tea. The comparisons to a Roger Moore-era James Bond are more than appropriate. Armie Hammer tip-toes in and out of a terrible Russian accent as the straight man, but he holds his own with his physical presence. Cavill doesn’t get all the fun. The ladies nearly steal the show. Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki tower out of their high heels and high fashion as a very empowered presences of heroine and villainess.
That necessary unique style to stand out from Bond and “Mission: Impossible” comes from director and co-writer Guy Ritchie ignoring the trend to modernize. Much like his two “Sherlock Holmes” treatments with Robert Downey, Jr., “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” remains in period in the marvelous, swinging 1960’s with style to spare in every direction. The humor comes out fluidly, naturally, and frequently. Composer Daniel Pemberton bounces in an uncanny Lalo Schifrin-esque musical score that feels soaked in the era. The colorful costumes, cars, and sets are all on point. Even the Rockwell wide font to everything hits its mark. The dedication to the period 1960’s setting means that half of this film’s fun is watching all of the stunts and missions operate with low-tech gadgets, minimal effects, and an emphasize of traditional stuntwork over CGI. All of these and more are perfect stylistic choices done by Ritchie and his team to make an highly enjoyable throwback that stays throwback.
Lesson #1: Toning down your vanity— Napoleon Solo has to learn that his suaveness, smoothness, and deception through charisma can’t get him out of every jam or win every mission. He has to reduce that urge and dodge that character flaw to gets things done when the situations get messy. Luckily, he’s not above making his bullets or fists do the talking.
Lesson #2: Toning down your temper— The yin to Napoleon’s yang is what makes Illya Kuryakin tick. He’s all brute force and zero softness. That hair trigger temper towards aggression doesn’t suit the situations that don’t need the mess. He had to find a way to be a measured single blow instead of sledgehammer. Luckily, Gaby is there to tame the beast.
Lesson #3: Putting differences and rivalries aside for common goals and common good— The last lesson is the obvious one and the crux of both the TV series and the film to play on the stereotypical differences of Cold War rivals forces to work together tenuously. Common goals, mutual interests, shared causes, and universal world safety bring these two alpha males together to merge their talents. Without a united attempt to trade animosity for respect, their individual efforts would counteract each other and lead to failure.