Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Raised From the Sixties

I always remembered the TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. being in black and white.  Apparently that was just because we had a black-and-white television set at the time.  Well now, it’s the wonderful world of color.

Guy Ritchie’s signature style works well in the fashionable 1960s European haunts in his film The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  It’s snazzy, it’s sharp, it’s brisk.  Still clever, still violent.  And surprisingly good, so long as you accept the genre — which is what, you may ask.  It’s not “tongue in cheek” espionage like the original Casino Royale.  It’s not Americanized tongue in cheek like the original TV series that was for adults but American adults so politically childlike.  It’s rather as if Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram couldn’t quite make up their minds whether to do a comedy or an espionage thriller.  They’re leaning quite heavily toward comedy, except when the implied violence goes too far… I mean, sure, they blew up Dr. Watson in the first Sherlock Holmes film in Ritchie’s franchise (and the good doctor should have been dead), so we can see how little Ritchie cares about realism.

Nevertheless, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (in case you’ve forgotten, or never knew, United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) was a lot of fun.  But it’s flawed, and although I’d like to see the franchise with the nuclear acting family continue, some pondering is in order for Ritchie & Wigram.  For now, let’s break this down:

Musically:  From the moment the music started I knew I wanted the soundtrack.

Visuals:  Oliver Scholl's production design and John Mathieson's cinematography are on the mark.  Their visions are in accord, presenting a film fine-tuned to seduce our senses.  We are fooled into believing it all works together.

As to the Story:  Screenplay by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram was fast-moving entertainment.  What does fast-moving mean?  Don’t think.  John Kennedy is president, the Cuban Missile Crisis is past, the Berlin Wall is up and East Germans are shooting their own people who try to get over said Wall.  American agent Napoleon Solo’s backstory seems to be more like Alexander Mundy, the thief turned spy in “It Takes A Thief,” yet another 1960s television program.  But I digress.  Solo is trying to get a cute East German girl mechanic over the Berlin Wall to help the U.S. recapture their asset, the girl’s father, a Nazi scientist who has worked for the U.S. since the end of World War II.  On the other side, Russian agent Illya Kuryakin’s orders are to keep the girl in East Germany.  Guess who wins.  And guess who the best driver is:  the girl!   

Cavill as Napoleon Solo and Alicia Vikander as Gaby
Once in Western Europe, the antagonists are forced to work together for the same goal:  keeping a possible nuclear weapon out of the hands of neo Nazis.  Where in Western Europe?  L’Italia.  Perfetto for spectacular vistas and style.

Cavill as Solo and Debicki as Victoria
Things roll along nicely with betrayals, tantalizing sexual innuendo, shenanigans and silly plot twists.  It’s just when we get to the torture scene that it stumbles off track.  It’s not easy to balance serious subjects and funny style, and Ritchie and co-writer Wigram do well most of the time.  But when Solo is strapped into the comfy chair with the crazy Nazi war criminal, well, he wouldn’t have survived. 

This sequence would have worked on “Archer” because that actually is a cartoon.  This might have looked OK in storyboards or on the panel of a comic book, but once you put it into a colorful spy live-action dramedy, it veers into a different chromatic scale which could work but did not, even when crazy Nazi doctor said the photographic record of this torture would be in Kodachrome instead of black and white.  The whole bit broke the spell, if only for a little while.

The Cast:

  • Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, charming, smooth without being oily, very cool, dapper. Having read the list of potential casting, I am here to say they picked the right guy.
  • Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin grew a foot, and is not the Illya I recall from the television series, but I enjoyed him.  Clearly he’s the deadpan straight man and Cavill the wit, and they play off one another very nicely.
    Cavill as Solo and Hammer as Kuryakin
  • Jared Harris with his strange American accent is comic book tough as CIA guy Sanders, said the same things into Solo’s ear as Misha Kuznetsov as Oleg, Harris’ counterpart in the Soviet Union, was saying to Kuryakin. More fun.
  • Alicia Vikander as Gaby Teller, the East German mechanic who is sought by all as a means of finding her (former Nazi?) scientist father.  Vikander is a wonderful actor, playing for laughs here and achieving them.  She is dressed by men, of course, as is Elizabeth Debicki, in the paper doll cut-out style of the Sixties.  Vikander is Goldie Hawn, while Debicki is wearing Twiggy’s clothes fashioned for Monica Vitti.
  • Elizabeth Debicki is not merely tall and young and lovely as Victoria, the sultry Italian mastermind.  She is elegantly evil, sinuous, sultry, and classily dangerous.  She is the essence of chic, just Napoleon Solo’s type.
    A match made in Mary Quant
  • Luca Calvani is attractive as Victoria’s husband Alexander, an heir to fantastic wealth that cannot have been come by honestly, whom we meet for the first time as a playboy in a racecar.  Shades of Tony Stark, but not as clever.
  • Sylvester Groth as the gross Uncle Rudi is appropriately creepy in a Marvel comic book way.
  • A charming Hugh Grant sneaks in as Alexander Waverly — his spiffy line from the trailer loses its thrust in the film, which is clearly the director’s error, not Grant’s. 

Admit it, Hugh Grant is cuter than Leo  G. Carroll
Absurd events compound upon others, then all ends neatly making us hope the franchise continues as the end implies it will.  Because it was fun. 

And, as is standard with Ritchie films, it isn’t over just because the credits are rolling.  They are fantastic, sketched across a band of red, with 60s style dossiers, black and white snapshots, essentially some back story in pictures.  Terrifically stylish stuff.

Yes, more style than substance, but it is still summer, after all.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to watch some black-and-white Solo, Kuryakin, and Waverly on MeTV.


  1. Yes to Cavill's Solo and yes to everything Debicki did. But that was not Illya. Not at all. For a reminder of what made Illya Kuryakin the male Mrs. Peel, go here:

    1. Love the article, very interesting and doubtless true. In fact, McCallum still reigns.