It’s not easy to convert a popular ‘60s TV show into a successful movie or franchise. For every successful Mission: Impossible and Star Trek film, there are still-born attempts like Wild Wild West, Bewitched, The Saint, The Avengers (not the Marvel comics one!) and Get Smart. Although the trailer didn’t give me much hope, Guy Ritchie’s big-screen effort with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. had me going Oliver Twist by the end and saying, “Please sir, I want some more.”
Anyone who has seen the trailer might think that this is another James Bond clone in a ‘60s setting. And they would be right, because the show concept was co-created by none other than Ian Fleming for MGM TV in 1963. Originally titled Ian Fleming’s Solo, it followed the template of his Bond stories with the names and nationalities changed – Napoleon Solo instead of James Bond and international spy organization U.N.C.L.E. instead of MI6. The show producers switched to a new title The Man from U.N.C.L.E. under legal action from the producers of Bond movie Goldfinger, as there was also a character called Mr. Solo in that movie. Clearly, Mr. Fleming wasn’t keeping track of what names he was using in which series! The show ran from 1964-68, and was a career launch pad for both its stars Peter Vaughn and David McCallum. It even inspired Stan Lee to create his own version of a spy organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics in 1965.
What has changed in this big-screen adaptation 50 years later? Well, for a start, the lead characters sure have become bigger. Compared to the suave and somewhat diminutive Peter Vaughn, CIA agent Napoleon Solo is now played by 6’1” Henry Cavill with his Superman muscles virtually bursting out of his impeccably tailored suit. Likewise, the character of Ilya Kuryakin has been completely recast with 6’5” Armie Hammer playing the Russian KGB agent in place of 5’7” floppy haired David McCallum.
The plot is fairly basic: In 1963, Nazi-era nuclear scientist turned American collaborator Udo Teller goes missing; he is presumed to be in the hands of Nazi sympathizers who are using his services to build their own private nuclear bomb. This is not welcome news to either the CIA or the KGB, so they bring together their two best operatives (Solo and Kuryakin) to find the missing scientist and put the bomb out of commission. To find the scientist, they enlist the help of his estranged daughter Gaby, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. She is the 2nd Swedish actress to feature prominently in a spy movie this summer, the other being Rebecca Fergusson in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. The trio end up in Italy as guests of the wealthy and flamboyant Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra, who are suspected of using their shipping business as a cover for building the weapon. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki is absolutely striking as the classy and ruthless femme fatale Victoria Vinciguerra. There is plenty of verbal repartee, humor and physical slapstick used as padding for the thin plot, but it all falls into place due to the charisma of the actors.
Cinematographer John Mathieson is a purist and has done a great job of using older model lenses to mimic the 60s look, in spite of shooting on digital; surely credit also goes to the highly accomplished Arri Alexa XT digital cameras, which supposedly provide the same color/ tonal range as real film. This is what action movies would have looked like if Douglas Sirk had directed them! The only disappointment for me was the night time action scene in the Vinciguerra Shipyard, when the footage lost all texture and started looking like a home movie. For the most part, the color and opulence of the costumes and sets just pops off the screen. When combined with Daniel Pemberton’s playful and exotic European soundtrack, it makes for a very distinctive movie experience.
I also love the way Guy Ritchie visualizes his action set pieces; unlike a lot of other modern directors who shoot their action sequences in close-up and edit with fast cuts, Ritchie goes for frequent long-shots, with pan-and-zoom, giving viewers a very good perspective of where people are in relation to one another (something that would have been very useful in a movie like Pacific Rim!). I had noticed this style in that memorable forest shootout scene of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows as well.
Sadly, the film has had a very soft launch across the world and I think it would take a financial miracle for Warner Bros. to greenlight a sequel.