Tuesday, 29 September 2015

2015 - The Year of Thespianage No.3 - The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

This year's other reboot of a TV spy show from the '60s is Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. By 1965, Bondmania had secured its place in Pop Culture, thanks to the phenomenal success of Goldfinger in 1964 and the even bigger box-office hit Thunderball the following year, and we began to see a slew of espionage films and tv shows. Some of them were serious and solemn, like the bleak adaptation of John Le Carre's novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Len Deighton's The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine. 

However, most of this new wave of spy thrillers were more frivolous and tongue-in-cheek. There was the brief series of Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin, much to the horror of fans of Donald Hamilton's series of books which were written in a more serious vein. Gotta read a few one day. The Matt Helm movies played up on Martin's perpetually tipsy playboy image and were a far cry from the character of the books. 
The other notable Bond parodies were the two Derek Flint films (Our Man Flint-1966, and In Like Flint-1967) which presented us with a virtual super-spy who spoke 45 languages, was proficient in numerous martial arts, and would 'sleep' by lying across two chairs and then taking a poison pill which would stop his heart. Next morning, his wristwatch would swivel out a tiny T-shaped mechanism which would massage the pulse on his wrist (he wears his watch on the inside of his wrist) and bring him back to life. These Flint films were clearly an attempt to out-do Bond, but they presented us with a character who was just too preposterous, despite the fact that he was played by James Coburn.

Television was quick to get on board the spy wagon. There was the Robert Culp/Bill Cosby series I Spy, as well as a childhood favourite of mine, Get Smart. Although, these two shows were fairly light-hearted, especially the adventures of the bumbling CONTROL agent Maxwell Smart. 
Aiming for something a little more Bond-like, aside from the series Mission:Impossible, there was also another spy show airing at the time that dealt with two operatives from rival agencies who teamed up to work for an agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Admittedly, I haven't seen many episodes of the original series. I think it used to screen in the afternoons in the 1970s at 3:00pm. I can recall getting home from school and catching the last ten or fifteen minutes of a few. 

Anyway, I went along to see this new film version, not really knowing what to expect. I wasn't sure if they were aiming for something like a Bond film or whether it was going to be like an Austin Powers movie. Thankfully, it was nothing like an Austin Powers movie. 
It's been over a month since I saw this film and much has been going on in my life since. I'm sure the details will be sketchy here. Also, I would need a second and/or third viewing to really make up my mind. However, I did like this film. 
Set in 1963, it concerns an American CIA agent named Napoleon Solo who helps a scientist's daughter escape from East Berlin. A Russian KGB agent named Illya Kuryakin is unsuccessful in stopping Solo from completing this mission. Solo is briefed by his superiors about the scientist, who has been kidnapped and is being forced to work on a nuclear device for a wealthy shipping magnate. Solo is then informed that he will be working in a CIA/KGB joint operation with Kuryakin. 
So, the first half of this film sees these two butting heads with each other in a beautifully rendered world of 1960s jetsetting, Italian pop songs, sharp suits and (now) classic cars. 

I loved the overall mood of this film and Director Ritchie has always been adept at making films about the relationship between men, whether it's an ensemble piece like Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000) and RocknRolla (2008), or something like the two Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey jr. and Jude Law. In U.N.C.L.E., he gives his two leads enough scenes where they can spar against each other. Henry Cavill is great as Napoleon Solo. I had read another review...

...where it was stated that Cavill's performance contained echoes of Robert Vaughn's original performance from the tv series and full credit to Cavill for adding this little touch to his take on the character. 
Armie Hammer does great as Soviet agent Kuryakin, even though he does a standard Russian 'eggsent'. Hammer plays the part with a straight-faced determination, creating a character who shows little emotion, but manages to convey feelings from time to time when his veneer shows a few cracks. 

The cinematography by John Mathieson is sleek, creating a heightened world full of colour, light and shadow. 
One thing I did notice was the lack of any huge action set-pieces. Whereas the recent Tom Cruise   Mission:Impossible installment contained some big action scenes, this film opts for smaller scenes containing some tense moments, and it is in some ways more about the relationship between these two operatives.
The film had a purported production budget of 75 million and, to date, it has grossed only 100 million in world-wide box-office earnings. Sadly, this would mean that a sequel is unlikely, which is a shame since I think this film deserved a wider audience and it would be interesting to see where the characters would go in a follow-up film. 
Overall, I liked this film. It isn't a Bond movie, it isn't a Mission:Impossible, but it does show that there is room for something slightly different in a modern spy movie. Lord knows, I'd rather see another U.N.C.L.E. movie rather than a fourth Taken. 
At any rate, who knows? Maybe Guy Ritchie will have enough clout to get a sequel in the works. Although, I think he'll be working on the next Sherlock Holmes film before he does anything else. 
If you missed The Man From U.N.C.L.E at the cinemas, then try to catch it on DVD (do people still rent DVDs?) or whatever format is current for watching films. 
It is definitely a sharp film in many ways. 

Thanks for reading!

And thanks once again to wikipedia for helping me fill in the blanks regarding story elements, production dates, etc.

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