A few months back, I learned that Guy Ritchie was directing a film version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I was obsessed with the show as a teen when I discovered it in re-runs, so I was thrilled when publicity stills of Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as the iconic secret agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin hit the internet. With new trailer I got more and more excited.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was wildly popular when it aired from 1964-1968. At the time, David McCallum (the original Illya, now a regular on NCIS) received more fan mail than any actor in MGM’s history. A certain comic book creator named Stan Lee was a fan of the show, and the agency U.N.C.L.E. (an acronym for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) inspired him to create his own organization for Marvel. You might have heard of it. It’s called S.H.I.E.L.D.
The original show didn’t take itself too seriously, and wouldn’t lend itself well to a gritty, Daniel-Craig-as-James-Bond reimagining. I didn’t want to see a Mission: Impossible-style reboot. I wanted to see Solo and Illya in the the swingin’ Sixties where they belonged. And that’s exactly what I got. Not quite a serious spy movie, not quite an Austin Powers-style parody, U.N.C.L.E. has always been something in between, and the movie was no different.
It’s not necessary to be a fan of the show to follow the plot. If you’re familiar with early James Bond films (Ian Fleming was consulted on the original show and even contributed the name “Solo” to the project), you’ll be good here. It’s an origin story, depicting how a CIA agent (Cavill) and a KGB operative (Hammer) on opposite sides of the Cold War come together in 1963 to stop an international criminal organization, made up of former Nazis and led by the deliciously evil Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki, who is outstanding in the villain role), from developing a nuclear bomb. Our guys team up with Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, whose character is every bit as strong as the men she works with), the daughter of a kidnapped scientist suspected of helping the bad guys, to stop them.
Strap in, it’s a fun movie, with the same light-hearted, caper-y, almost bordering on silly fun the show was known for. (There’s an action sequence involving powerboats, a truck, and a sandwich. You’ll know it when you see it.) It’s also one of the more stylish films you’ll see this year: the 1960s costuming and set decoration details are worth the ticket price alone.
Henry Cavill is a smooth Napoleon Solo, with a performance that seems completely in line with Robert Vaughn’s portrayal on the TV series. Purists may be a little startled, however, by Armie Hammer’s portrayal of Illya Kuryakin. The original Illya was an enigmatic and brilliant figure. Where McCallum’s Illya was brains, then Hammer’s Illya is brawn: a 6’5” wall of muscle who is used by the KGB as a blunt weapon. But Hammer is nearly a foot taller than McCallum, so adjustments are understandable, and Illya in the film is still just as compelling a character.
While the film version isn’t performing as well as expected (only a $13.5 million take its first week), I’m hoping that word of mouth will give the film some legs and commission at least one sequel. My inner teenager was thrilled to see Solo and Illya again, and I’d love to see more.
(As a Central Florida-centric aside, my current favorite place to see a film is the AMC Downtown Disney. Especially the Fork & Screen. Sure, you have to dodge tourists and Disney traffic, but you get enormous comfy chairs, a table, and your very own waitress who brings you theatre snacks, full-on entrees, or even cocktails. I had the bistro mac & cheese and some kind of blue drink while I was transported back to 1963 with this movie, and had a wonderful time.)
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – rated PG-13
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant
(Photo credit, featured image: Photo by Daniel Smith – © 2014 – Warner Bros., All Rights Reserved)