Guy Ritchie’s version of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” benefits greatly from the motivational soundtrack and the cinematography that makes this like a thrilling fashion video, but like his version of Sherlock Holmes, there is less intellectual games and more hypermasculinity at play. This is not the the TV series on a bigger budget, but a bait-and-switch. As with Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, the characters are not the same, but their names are unchanged.
For those who have forgotten or never seen the original series, you can view the first episode of the original series on Amazon Instant for free if you use certain browsers. In that particularly episode, “The Vulcan Affair,” (done before Vulcan had anything to do with “Live Long and Prosper”), the adventure is more of a Solo affair.
In the pilot, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) are already working together. Kuryakin only speaks four lines. His part expanded when fan mail made it clear fans wanted to see more of him. The agency U.N.C.L.E. is already established in hidden back rooms of a tailor’s shop.
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” only ran for four season from 1964-1968 with 105 episodes. It was one of several spy series such as steampunk before it had a name western “The Wild Wild West” (1965-1969), British import “The Avengers” (1961-1969) and “I Spy”(1965-1968). There was also, “It Takes a Thief” (1968-1970). “Mission Impossible” ran from 1966 to 1973.
In 1960, the average male height was 5-foot-8 (as opposed to 5-foot 9.5 in 2002). For women it was 5-foot-3 changing to 5-foot-4. The New York City-born Robert Vaughn is 5-foot-10. The Glasgow, Scotland-born David McCallum is 5-foot-7. The man who played Waverly, Leo G. Carroll, was 5-foot-10 (born 1886). So we have two men just two inches above average and one man an inch below.
The main point is that the original two agents were more like the average man, but the cast of Guy Ritchie’s version of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” are tall and muscular. St. Saviour, Jersey-born Henry Cavill is 6-foot-1 and 32. Los Angeles-born Armie Hammer is 6-foot-5 and 28 years old. You couldn’t have imagined Vaughn playing Superman as did Cavill. Vaughn’s Solo was a superior man and not Superman.
Cavill’s secret agent is less the smooth elegant Napoleon Solo in the mold of Cary Grant and more of Alexander Mundy–a thief on a leash who spends time at Muscle Beach. In this conceit, the thief is let out of jail only if he helps the government agency which, for Solo, at first is the CIA. The opening sequence sets up a meet-cute between Solo, Kuryakin and the damsel in distress Gaby (Alicia Vikander). It’s 1963 and the place is Berlin. A 12-foot concrete wall separates East from West. CIA agent Solo and KGB agent Kuryakin both are after East German mechanic Gaby Teller who is in East Berlin, but Solo successfully gets her to West Berlin.
Gaby’s father, Dr. Udo Teller, is a nuclear rocket scientist who has gone missing and his scientific research could change the balance of the nuclear powers of the U.S. and Russia. THRUSH, an evil agency that has no national allegiance, seems to have the good doctor under their control. To defeat THRUSH, the CIA and the KGB decide to have Solo and Kuryakin work together although both are used to working alone. Solo will pose as an art thief who specializes in “complicated acquisitions” to fill in the gaps in art collections. Kuryakin will pose as a Russian architect who is engaged to Gaby. Gaby’s Uncle Rudi in Italy supposedly knows where his brother is so the threesome arrive in Italy and take residence is a posh hotel. Solo and Kuryakin do a poor job pretending not to know each other. Gaby appeals to her uncle; she wants her estranged father at her wedding.
Solo and Kuryakin search for the nuclear warheads and Gaby’s father; they’ll find both but have problems completing their mission. The CIA and KGB both want the scientist and his research and have ordered their agent to kill the other for it. This is basically an origin story and it’s told with great visual style even when the cross-genre transitions are awkward.
There’s an odd quality to Cavill’s voice as Solo. When he speaks it’s as if he’s narrating his own story and sounds almost like the dubbing over of foreign films–as if this was an Italian film that was dubbed. His thief-on-a-leash borrows from the more easy-going “It Takes a Thief” which had the added charm of Fred Astaire in its later episodes and the thief-as-spy storyline was already rebooted for USA Network TV series “White Collar” with Matt Bomer (2009-2014).
While McCallum’s Kuryakin was mysterious, Hammer’s version is not. Hammer’s Kuryakin’s father was sent in disgrace to Siberia and there are rumors that his mother was promiscuous. He has definite anger management issues, great strength and an Oedipus complex (I’m not making this part up; It is spelled out). McCallum’s Kuryakin had gymnastic skills, was intellectual, had connections with the gypsies and might or might not have been married.
Ritchie’s version of Solo and Kuryakin seems to be more derived physically from the James Bond movies of the time, the brutish muscularity of the 6-foot-2 Sean Connery. Connery was James Bond from 1962-1971 and again in 1983. Bond, Kuryakin and Solo are both creations for Ian Fleming.
There are places where the Ritchie and Lionel Wigram script attempts to channel the humor of “Get Smart” (1965-1970) in a watered down form. In a café scene, the script pokes fun at discussing clandestine operations in a public place and during an escape scene, one secret agent takes advantage of an opportunity to have a meal while the other is dealing with the bad guys. But these attempts at humor don’t work within the total package but make for such an uneven tone that you might think about if it weren’t for the fast pacing and the driving score.
The soundtrack gives this film an added flair, reminiscent of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, but unlike those movies, this film is almost afraid of the significance of silence. Ritchie and Wigram have managed to mash together much of what gave the 1960s style, but in doing so have not so much defined a style for “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” but made a new and somewhat ersatz James Bond. Instead of being partners and pals, Solo and Kuryakin are slightly antagonistic competitors. Is that a trend? When “The Wild Wild West” was rebooted agents James West and Artemus Gordon became distrustful rivals instead of friends. Being from opposite sides and different culture, some conflict should be expected, but that’s not what “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” was.
The fear of silence also manifests in a tendency to over explain motivations. Some of the visual quick explanations for people and things works well, but not in the case of that evil torturer who seems like something out of a comic-book (and I don’t mean that in a good way). The mad doctor starts talking about himself and his deep evil history so we justify his death by showing how evil he had been during World War II. Juxtaposing the Nazi cruel medical experiments with torture of Solo and then transitioning to a neglectful death, is questionable attempt at black humor.
Is this a comedy? Is this a reality? Are these two spies really that incompetent in this scene? And then suddenly they are back on track to being smoothly capable of the near impossible? Do we really need to know everything about everybody? In real life, would we? In the TV series, we weren’t even sure if Kuryakin was a man of mystery. There is little secretive about these secret agents.
Visually, Solo and Kuryakin are less physically like the average man with superior intellects and have exaggerated masculinity–taller and stronger than the average man and the new Kuryakin isn’t even emotionally stable. This Kuryakin is less cool and professional and if this is the best that Russia has, no wonder they were in trouble. It’s as if Ritchie and Wigram didn’t trust in the actors to carry of more subtle characterizations and therefore weren’t particularly concerned about the chemistry between the two and confuse cool with high school cool kid antics of one upmanship. A little competition is cool. This amount is calamitously unprofessional.
The movie also diverges from the original series’s formula: There was always one innocent around which the action revolved, but here we have a false innocent, Gaby. Should there be future installments, one wonders if Ritchie’s versions of Solo and Kuryakin will become friends or continue to be competitive rivals. A TV series has a few installments to create a character, but a movie, usually just one. Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” explains too much, but in doing so doesn’t explain why Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin caught the imaginations of its original fans.