(NOTE: Possible SPOILERS ahead!!!)
After the big-screen travesties of “21 Jump Street,” “The Avengers” (as in Steed and Mrs. Peel), “I Spy,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “The Wild Wild West,” and probably others my memory refuses to dredge up, a Hollywood remake has gotten it right. Guy Ritchie of “Sherlock Holmes” fame has given us “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” for a new generation.
As we were warned and as the trailers have shown us, it’s not just like the series. There are no steel-walled headquarters behind a tailor shop, no Innocent character (though East Berlin “chop-shop girl” Gaby Teller [right] starts out that way). Waverly is there, though not all the way through the film. There’s no bulletproof glass scene, let alone as an intro. No Thrush either; the “international criminal organization” in the film is given no name.
And our heroes Solo and Illya are given colorful backgrounds completely unlike the original characters. Napoleon Solo [Henry Cavill, below], while he is ex-Army, is kin to Alexander Mundy of “It Takes a Thief,” a former heist artist working off his prison sentence by spying for the CIA; and Illya Kuryakin [Armie Hammer, above] is huge, ferocious, and powerful, the son of a Siberian exile father and a adulterous mother. They are not friends. In fact -- this being, apparently, an origin story -- they hate each other, and during the film’s first ten minutes try seriously to kill each other. And light romantic comedian Hugh “I don’t give a toss, Jones” Grant as their spymaster boss, Mr. Waverly --???
So far this doesn’t sound much like the series we’ve loved, lo, these many decades, does it?
Ritchie is famous for his Sherlock Holmes films, in which Holmes bears not much resemblance at first to Doyle’s iconic character -- but in which the core of the character is there, and the films also feature little nods to the original material. His “U.N.C.L.E.” is the same way. The East Berlin scenes remind you of “Dove Affair,” the film’s safecracking sequence of “Fiddlesticks” and “J for Judas,” Elizabeth Debicki’s glamorous villainess of Anne Francis as Gervaise Ravel in “Quadripartite” and “Giuoco Piano.” The carbine [above] with telescopic sight wielded by Illya in several scenes suggests the famous U.N.C.L.E. Special. And there are plot switches like those in “Giuoco Piano” and “Deadly Decoy.”
Most important, the film is neither a parody nor a comedy, but an energetic period-piece (1963) spy story with real danger, leavened by humor in the right places. * The casting, always the tricky thing to get right, is spot on. (Let’s be honest. If you were to see the movie poster [right] without the legend on it, merely the armed figures -- wouldn’t you muse to yourself, “Gee, they remind me of Solo and Illya . . .”? ) (Let us genuflect to the God of Moviemakers and be very glad that Tom Cruise bowed out of the project!)
Ritchie’s visual style as a director is very much in the manner of original series directors like Joseph Sargent and Barry Shear. The story hustles while still telling us what we need to know. Ritchie’s trademark “flashback snippets which explain what really happened” are sprinkled here and there. And the almost balletic scenes of the East Berlin car chase are amazing. Beyond that, we get split-screen techniques in one or two places which beautifully show us separate but simultaneous events. The assault on Vinciguerra Island, for example, takes only a third of the time a conventional scene would, and gets us to the point we really want to see: Solo and Illya going into action as a team [above].
Grant as “Commander Waverly” [right] appears very little until close to the climax, thus one of the tricky plot switches I mention. Grant carries off his role with an air of amused mastery, and without the “Upper-Class Twit” routine he’s known for. (“Commander,” of course, being James Bond’s RNVR rank; and there is a reference to another Bond film as well.)
Verdict: It’s good. Go see it. And be sure to stick around for the credits: We’re afforded glimpses into the lead characters’ dossiers, and the meaning of the letters U.N.C.L.E. appear on screen. (Yes, fellow purists, it reads “Law and Enforcement.”)
* If I have one quibble, it’s with the scene in which Solo, fully aware that his temporary partner is being chased by guards and fired upon by machine guns, takes the time to tune the truck radio ** and to have a drink and a bite of sandwich before coming to Illya’s aid. This was too much like the “Illya fighting in the rain while Solo charms the girl” scene at the end of “Dippy Blonde” -- far too comic. Otherwise the humor is handled as the best of the original episodes did it: after the danger is past.
** “Blink and You’ll Miss It" Dept.: A snippet of Hugo Montenegro’s MfU Theme plays on the truck radio.
Solo (to his CIA handler): “You told me this was going to be a simple extraction. . . . What was waiting for me was barely human. It tore the back end off my car.”
Illya (after paralyzing a Vinciguerra guard with a special KGB blow, so that the victim remains on his feet while unconscious): “Will be like this for . . . twenty minutes. Can’t touch.”
Waverly (to Illya): “For a special agent you’re not having a very special day, are you?”
Illya (softly, to the unconscious Gaby Teller): “Sleep well, little chop-shop girl.”
Illya (about Solo’s fence-cutting tool): “What is that?”
Solo: “Super-hardened boron, sharpened with a CO2 laser.” [He watches Illya’s glowing device melt its way through the fence links] What’s that?”
Illya: “CO2 laser. . . . Coming?”
Solo: “Absolutely hate working with you, Peril.” (Solo dubs Illya “The Red Peril” early on, and calls him that with one exception throughout)
Illya: “You’re a terrible spy, Cowboy.”
And the exchange that perfectly captures the spirit of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”:
(Solo and Illya watch as Gabby’s Uncle Rudi, Victoria’s expert torturer, who has been complaining while torturing Solo of “a glitch” in the wiring of his electrical torture chair, burns up in said chair)
Illya: “He found the glitch.”
Solo: “Damn. I left my jacket in there. . . .”