Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Cry U.N.C.L.E.! and Let Slip the Dogs of Summer!
The Better Luck Next Time Affair

Those of us "of an age" remember the 1960's (if what we did in the 70's and 80's didn't completely wipe it out) as a time burgeoning from eclectic influences in pop culture. Colors were bold, music had influences from around the world (mostly British, French, Italian, and Spanish with a smattering of Appalachian folk), literature disobeyed rules and fashion skimped on material and was mightily chromatic. Things began to go "pop" and the notion of "long-hair music" forever changed. In the era of the Beatles and Bond, things began to be taken less seriously until it fell into "camp." On TV, the transition went from black-and-white into "living color" and the shows went from filmed radio plays to bigger-budgeted escapism.  

One of those was an hour long spy-mock-drama that endeavored to bring a James Bond type of thriller to the small screen (Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, contributed the name of its hero-agent) with a touch of intercontinentalism (on a small budget) and a running nod towards Hitchcock. "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." (which stood for The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.*) premiered on the NBC TV network in September of 1964 (a few months shy of the movie premiere of Goldfinger) and featured Robert Vaughn as American agent Napoleon Solo (Fleming's contribution) and David McCallum as Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin. Leo G. Carroll played their boss, Alexander Waverly (he played a similar head of a spy agency in Hitchcock's North By Northwest). The plots generally revolved a plot by the criminal organization T.H.R.U.S.H.** which Solo and Kuryakin would quell with the assist of an innocent civilian (usually that week's lead guest star) who would prove invaluable and then return to their ordinary lives never to be heard from again. The show ran for 4 seasons on NBC and frequently bits of episodes were joined together to form theatrical films which were most prominently shown in foreign markets. There was a spin-off: "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E." starring Stephanie Powers (as agent April Dancer—another Fleming name) and Noel Harrison, but it lasted one season.
That was then; this is now.  An "UNCLE" film has been in development for years with various enticing elements attached, but when the chips fell, Guy Ritchie was in the director chair, and re-united with his Sherlock Holmes co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram to make an updated version of the film. Just as with that film, the two tinker with expectations while trying to remain somewhat true to the spirit of the thing.
So, how is it?  Pretty luke-warm for a Cold War film.  It is an origin story of sorts, set in 1963 with a threat of such high seriousness and nuclear repercussions that the CIA and KGB must unite to try and stop it. The recruits are Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill—who doesn't have Vaughn's lizard-like charm, but replaces it with a winsome mean streak) and Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, just fine, thank you), just like the series. But not like the series. Solo has a history of theft, smuggling and black marketeering from his days at the end of World War II (although Solo looks a bit young to have been serving at the time) and Kuryakin is humorless, abnormally strong (he yanks the boot off a car at one point in the film) and is reported to be slightly psychotic from childhood traumas. Well, that's no fun, but it does set up the sort of bitchy, bickering banter that the Holmes films are known for, some of which works and some of which feels like filler.
The collaboration does not start off well.
The matter at hand is an Italian industrialist couple, the Vinciguerras's (Luca Calvani, Elizabeth Debicki) with ties to former Nazis who—for whatever reason—are trying to develop a nuclear bomb. Not nice. The reason Solo and Kuryakin are collaborating is that both agents were trying to get their hands on one Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander), whose father is working with the Vinciguerra's to develop the bomb. Solo manages to smuggle her out of East Berlin, much to the consternation of Kuryakin, who is trying to prevent it. This forces the two sides to cooperate, although both agents are privately advised to steal the back-ups of the bomb plans even if they have to kill the other to do so. Not the most viable of partnerships.
And if their rivalry doesn't put the kibosh on the operation, Gabby's loose cannonry certainly might. She trusts Solo a bit (he did, after all, get her out of East Berlin), Kuryakin, not at all—and he's the one tasked with posing as her fiancé in the hopes that she can contact her long-missing Daddy working for the enemy. It is the flimsiest of spy-schemes but it beats a high-stakes poker game or most of the other UNCLE strategies on the TV show. While Solo turns on the charming roguishness with the Vinciguerra's (particularly the Mrs.)...
...Kuryakin and Teller try to pose as a happy couple in love, something the Russian has to be constantly coached at by both Solo and Teller, as he is not very good at staying in character. He also has a nasty habit of losing his temper and using his martial arts training, even though he's supposed to be posing as an architect. Considering he's being watched constantly by Vinceguerrian hoods, you would think he'd have a little more control over himself. How long has Kuryakin been an undercover agent, anyway? 
The character arcs of the two agents are rather obvious—they start out as the best of enemies and after some softening up, whether by feminine charm or by Nazi-inspired torture, they become the worst of friends. Each has more than enough opportunity to irritate the other—they both manage to "bug" the other metaphorically and technologically—but stray instances of rescuing the other, even if deliberately delayed after initial second thoughts, makes them realize that they have each others' backs, even if secretly imagining a target over-layed there. It's a wonder with all the bickering they get any work done and it becomes apparent fairly early on who the prime movers of the opposite camps are.
For the best thing about The Man From U.C.L.E. is, contrarily, The Women: Vikander's Gabby Teller is presented as an innocent—the Hitchcock innocent in over their head (which was a much used trope of the original TV series)—but she quickly displays a better understanding of her role than the uptight Kuryakin does, and her adaptability and her quick judgment in rolling with changes in strategy makes her a better insurgent than Solo, who always manages to stick out like a superbly tailored sore thumb. And the actress has more fun with her role than either of the two leads, frequently being more engaging and entertaining—there's a lovely moment where she boogies to vintage rock in the background while Kuryakin tries to concentrate on a focusing chess game despite the irritation of his lively room-mate.
Then there's the villainess, played by Debicki. Tightly coiffed and haute coutured to maximum advantage, she resembles nothing so much as a blonde Audrey Hepburn morphed into a cutthroat assassin. She's gorgeous, but that's not the main reason you wouldn't want to turn your back on her, and Debicki invisibly sashays between cooing hostess and sociopathic evil without breaking stride. Her screen-time is not much, but she manages to be always one step ahead of her co-players, both in dominating a scene and the story.  The actor playing her husband barely registers—it's clear she's in charge even if she wouldn't be caught dead wearing a pant-suit.
That the women in U.N.C.L.E. are far more interesting that the titular males seems a little surprising and a bit vexing—maybe we've seen the back-biting, bitching male co-workers too much in Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" movies. And like those, the movie has an over-abundance of style—the period details are fun and distracting, the fashion is really well-done—if only the central roles were as nicely tailored—and the soundtrack is a bold blend of brash Italian stylings with glimmers of other pop fads from the 60's—there's even a barely discernible nod to Jerry Goldsmith's theme from the TV show. It's the one hint of subtlety to the score which is refreshingly free from being the musical paste that has become more of the norm these days and is more of an accompaniment than trying to "blend."

But, there should be more to a movie than some good elements. However fresh some things are, it can not keep the whole thing from feeling a little stale. One wishes for a little more fun, a bit more wink, which, even in its earliest days, the series managed to pull off.  

Open Channel D (or, at Best, C-)
Mr. Waverly (Hugh Grant) gets the very predictable last word.

* The series had a nice joke at the end of the weekly credits: "We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement without whose assistance this program would not be possible."

** It was never really established what the "THRUSH" acronym stood for but it has been widely accepted as The Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity—a name that probably wouldn't qualify it for 501(c)(3) status.

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