There's a tasteless old joke that defines "mixed emotions" as the reaction you would have upon hearing that your mother-in-law just drove off a cliff in your new Jaguar. As a die-hard fan of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." TV series, I admit to having expectations of experiencing mixed emotions at last Monday's world premiere of Guy Ritchie's feature film version of the show at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. For those of us who grew up during the spy craze of the mid-1960s, espionage movies are always close to our hearts. With Bond, Bourne and Mission: Impossible still big box-office, it's clear that the younger generation is in synch with our passion for this genre. The Bond films have earned respect for enduring for more than 50 years with six different actors giving vastly different interpretations of Agent 007, each successful in his own way. However, Bond has never been out off the big screen for a period of more than five years (those dark days between the release of Licence to Kill in 1989 and GoldenEye in 1995), whereas some of the other classic spy sensations of the 1960s were brought back many years after their initial success. The classic Get Smart TV series begat a woeful big screen version called The Nude Bomb in 1980, a decade after the show last aired. The 2008 version with Steve Carell was only good by comparison. The Avengers begat the universally-scorned big screen version. The success of Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible franchise masks the fact that the films have nothing to do with the classic TV series that inspired it. That show's premise was to showcase a team of special agents, each of whom had their own unique special talents. Cruise's films tossed out the team concept and even made the show's leading hero, Jim Phelps into the main villain in the first big screen edition. (Blasphemy! It's like remaking Gunsmoke and having Marshall Dillon turn out to be a bank robber.) The Wild, Wild West (inexplicably re-titled Wild, Wild West) was a dreadful 1999 concoction that served as a vanity piece for Will Smith. The less said about the big screen version of I Spy starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson, the better. Following the distortions big screen versions of beloved spy TV series perpetrated on the movie-going public, those of us who are long time U.N.C.L.E. aficionados sometimes felt that the long-planned theatrical version of the show might best be left undeveloped. Indeed, it seemed as though fate agreed. There have been so many efforts made to bring the franchise to movie screens that one loses count of them all. Suffice it to say that scripts have been floating around major studios since the mid-1970s when the show's original stars, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, were deemed essential to star in it. In 1983, we did get Vaughn and McCallum in the CBS TV movie Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. but plans to revive the series fell through. Over the decades, high profile names like Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh had all expressed enthusiasm about making a feature film version of the only to have plans inevitably go up in smoke. Finally, director Guy Ritchie managed to overcome the curse with the long-awaited film that has just opened. Ritchie seemed to throw cold water on the project in the eyes of many fans of the show when he announced he was ditching most of the key ingredients that were considered to be main staples of the U.N.C.L.E. story lines. Thus, it was with an open mind but a bit of trepidation that I entered the theater to experience the film, comforted by the knowledge that at least the lavish after-party at the Bowery Hotel was sure to be sensational. (It was.)
I'm please to say that not only did I enjoy the new feature film version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. but so did several die-hard, long-time admirers of the show who alsoattended the premiere. The first order of business in regard to the film is to understand that director Ritchie has started the concept of the franchise from scratch. Fortunately, Ritchie did keep one integral aspect of the show intact: it is set in the Cold War. In this version Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is a charismatic international smuggler of fine art who is avoiding a lengthy jail term by doing high stakes undercover work for the F.B.I. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a psychologically troubled Soviet agent with a hair-trigger temper and almost supernatural physical strength. He is a loyal agent to the Red cause partly because he feels an obligation to restore his family's honor, as his father had been denounced by Stalin's regime as a traitor. The film opens with Solo sneaking into East Berlin to make contact with Gaby (well-played by Alicia Vikander), a sexy young woman who is nonetheless relegated to working as a mechanic in a dreary auto repair shop. Solo informs her that her estranged father, an esteemed nuclear scientist, has been kidnapped by forces unknown. The fear is that he may be forced to develop a nuclear weapon for an unstable regime. (At least the plot line is timely, given the current debates that are on-going about the Iran nuclear deal.) She agrees to help him track down her father through trying to contact an equally estranged uncle who may know his whereabouts. All of this entails the minor obstacle of getting over the Berlin Wall. In the course of attempting to do so, the pair is relentlessly attacked by Kuryakin, who seems impervious to pain and impossible to slow down, let alone stop. The ever- dapper Solo, however, is unfazed by any number of near death situations and he and Gaby make a daring escape in a manner that is suspiciously similar to that used by James Coburn in the 1967 flick In Like Flint.
The plot threatens to become predictable when Solo and Kuryakin are forced to work together by their respective intelligence agencies, a device that already had moss on it back in 1977 when Roger Moore found himself in the same situation with an albeit beautiful Soviet spy (Barbara Bach) in The Spy Who Loved Me. After a brutal, knock-down, drag 'em out fist fight, Solo and Kuryakin make a temporary truce to ensure the success of the mission. If will not be revealing any astonishing "spoilers" to inform the reader that the duo ultimately come to respect each other, even while engaging in typical male ball-busting put-downs. Things heat up when they discover that the missing scientist is in the hands of a group of international, filthy rich criminals (are there any other kind in spy flicks?) Fortunately, these baddies are of Bondian caliber and the most intriguing of them is Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki in a sensational performance). There are numerous plot twists, some surprising and some predictable, and quite a few extravagant action sequences. This time around, Ritchie shows more restraint than usual by minimizing the number of action scenes that are shot in today's de rigeur style of blurry images and fast cuts that undermine the impact of such sequences, although a major chase scene involving an ATV falls victim to the cliche. If the film is about anything, it's costume and production design and both aspects are highly impressive. For those of us who still cling to fond memories of the 1960s, it's wonderful to see so many stylish fashions on the big screen once again. Some of the scenes are staged to look like layouts for a fashion magazine of the era and the result is rather delightful, especially in scenes in which Vikander wears some striking mod numbers that recall Stefanie Powers as The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. I should also point out that in today's world of grungy male screen heroes, it's refreshing to see Solo stride proudly around wearing well-tailored three-piece suits. Ritchie also deserves credit for including imaginative opening and ending credits, which in itself represents a rarity today. The film contains any number of highly amusing sequences, some of which are laugh-out-loud funny, yet it never goes full throttle over-the-top into the world of Get Smart, Austin Powers or even that much-derided, camp-filled third season of the TV series. It's also fun to see a movie set in an age where sophisticated spies must use "high tech" gadgets that look positively primitive by today's standards. Obviously, there are no cell phones, computers or other modern distractions.
Don't look for Del Floria's tailor shop entrance to U.N.C.L.E. HQ. In fact, don't look for U.N.C.L.E in the new feature film- it's a code word, not an organization. However, the anticipated sequel seems to remedy that.
There are some gnawing disappointments. One would have hoped that there would have been a few more overt nods toward the impact of the original TV series, which remains quite popular today. Why no cameos from Robert Vaughn and David McCallum? Composer Daniel Permberton provides a fine, innovative score but why is the only acknowledgement of Jerry Goldmith's legendary main theme relegated to a brief joke when Solo hears a few strains of Hugo Montenegro's cover version on a car radio? Why has the famed pen communicator (which foreshadowed the mobile phone by decades) been left absent from the script? At least there are some glimpses of the beloved U.N.C.L.E. rifle and Hugh Grant may not make us forget the great Leo G. Carroll's interpretation of Alexander Waverly, but he does bring energy and wit to the role. Most of the credit must go to Cavill and Hammer for overcoming the unenviable task of inheriting their roles from two TV icons. Cavill does seem to intentionally channel Vaughn's perpetually flippant style as Solo but Hammer's Illya is far removed from McCallum's interpretation. To their credit, they show considerable chemistry together. Much has been made over advance word that U.N.C.L.E. is not even an organization in this film and there is no mention of its evil counterpart Thrush. However, if you stay for the closing credits (which the vast majority of the audience at the world premiere did not, as they were eager to get to the after-party and all that free booze) you will find that the emergence of U.N.C.L.E. as an organization seems in the cards if a sequel materializes. In fact, the movie ends as though a continuation is an inevitability. I asked director Ritchie about this and he said all concerned are ready, willing and eager for a sequel, but it all depends upon the box-office for this film. Here's hoping it happens. Those of us who have waited for forty years for an U.N.C.L.E. feature film can't wait another forty. The film does not make you forget the classic original series but in its own way compliments it. For those involved it's a case of mission accomplished.