Fans of the original TV show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” will recall exactly what it was that made it work so well. It was a fun and entertaining spy show that was amusingly campy, with charming performances from Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. Fast forward 50 years later and it becomes rather surprising that no one had put together a feature film based on the show this entire time. After all, most of the other major spy shows of the period got their big screen treatment, from the upper end of the scale with the “Mission: Impossible” franchise to the lesser adaptations that included “The Avengers” and “I, Spy,” so why not take a chance with the one that is famous for starting the spy trend of the ‘60s in the first place? At long last, under the direction of Guy Ritchie (“Snatch,” “Sherlock Holmes”), fans finally get to see Napoleon and Illya have their own big screen adventure, but was the wait truly worth it, or is it just another ‘60s adaptation that’s best forgotten?
Set in the early ‘60s during the Cold War, the film starts with CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) on a mission in Berlin in which he is to seek out the daughter, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), of a scientist who has mysteriously disappeared while working on nuclear weapons. Unfortunately for him, the KGB has sent an agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), to find her as well. Solo barely manages to escape with Gaby to the American side of Berlin, but in a shocking turn of events, the CIA and KGB decide that it would be best to work together, for if any country should get their hands on the information that Gaby’s father has, they would become a major threat. Forced to partner up, Solo and Kuryakin make the best out of the situation as they attempt to hunt their target down in the hopes of preventing what could be an enormous nuclear catastrophe.
It needs to be stated right up front that fans of the original show who sit down to watch this big screen adaptation in hopes of seeing a film that does justice to it will be immensely disappointed. Other than three character names, Guy Ritchie’s film has absolutely nothing to do with the ‘60s television show. There’s no fun, no camp, and, as hard as it is to believe, U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t even exist (that is until it’s cheekily mentioned in the final seconds of the film, revealing we’ve been watching a pointless origin story the entire time). As for the characters themselves, Napoleon Solo is given the pointless backstory of being a former criminal who was caught and forced to work for the CIA, while Illya Kuryakin is apparently a one-man wrecking crew, meaning that Ritchie and his crew apparently didn’t pay the least bit of attention to the source material that they were supposed to be adapting. This simply begs the question of why they bothered calling it “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” when it has next to nothing to do with the show. This could have been called a number of different titles that would have been more fitting rather than trying to call it something it’s clearly not.
Now, with that out of the way, we can take a look at the film itself. Putting aside the fact that it doesn’t resemble “U.N.C.L.E.” at all, what we get instead is a generically-scripted action film that puts very little time and effort into its story about the race to find a scientist with nuclear secrets. In fact, there are several purposeless scenes that merely manage to stretch the film out to its overly-long runtime of about two hours, showing that the writers didn’t have much of a clue as to how to fill out this already-bland story. The characters don’t help out much in that department either, with both “Napoleon” and “Illya” scarcely being given any personality. Henry Cavill spends the entire film trying to do an iffy Robert Vaughn impression, while Armie Hammer mostly mutters his lines in between fighting and shooting. It merely becomes another instance in which you wish that the filmmakers had actually watched the show, because there was really no need to write two lifeless characters when two engaging characters had already been established so well beforehand.
What we’re left with is an easily-forgettable action film that fails to entertain or engage in pretty much every way. The story is half-baked, the characters couldn’t be less interesting, and the action just leads to a sense of monotony, particularly as it heads into what it supposed to be its grand and exciting finale. Hopefully the studio will use this as a lesson, though a very costly lesson it has been, with the main point being that, when you’re adapting a popular television show, it’s usually a good idea to pay at least a little attention to the source material. Rather than just taking a couple of names, it’s wise to attempt to capture the spirit of the show, instead of trying to replace everything with an extremely generic actioner that’s just going to leave audiences bored and unengaged. It’s unfortunate to have to say it, but this entire endeavor was doomed from the start. It’s just a shame that no one was able to stop during the production and see the all-too-clear direction in which it was heading.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.4:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of excellent quality. The picture is beautifully sharp and clear, allowing the gorgeous period details to shine through quite nicely. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is likewise outstanding, giving you all elements of the soundtrack in perfect quality. Overall, there’s not a single problem to be found in either area thanks to the amazing treatment that the film has received.
Spyvision: Recreating the ‘60s Cool (8 Minutes): A decent look at creating the style of the film, including the costumes and gadgets.
A Higher Class of Hero (7 Minutes): An interesting look at a few of the action sequences featured in the film.
Metisse Motorcycles: Proper, and Very British (5 Minutes): A quick look at the brand of motorcycle used in the film. Easily skippable.
The Guys from U.N.C.L.E. (5 Minutes): A brief featurette that focuses on the main characters.
A Man of Extraordinary Talents (3 Minutes): A very brief featurette featuring the cast and crew talking about director Guy Ritchie. This is another one that’s easily skippable.
U.N.C.L.E.: On-Set Spy (5 Minutes): A neat collection of behind the scenes footage.
Guy Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a massive disappointment that flat-out ignores the television show on which is was supposed to be based, replacing the fun and camp of the original with a generic and lazily-written actioner. It’s all the more disappointing that, because of the enormous box office failure of Ritchie’s film, we’ll probably never see another attempt at adapting this material, which could make for a great film if done correctly. Unfortunately fans will just have to dream about what might have been.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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