True Confession: I’m just old enough to have both watched and remember the original Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series, some of it first run in the later seasons. Especially since, in the old days there weren’t 50 million channels and nothing on, or what seems like four TV seasons per year, any show you might have missed on first run, or shows you loved, you saw in re-runs in the summer. And I loved the Man From U.N.C.L.E. So I went in to this movie excited to see what they were going to do with an idea that only works if you have the Cold War large and in charge.
So, does it live up to my childhood memories? Yes and no, and both of those are in good ways.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is first a WWII war hero, and then an art thief who, after he’s arrested, is given the option to stay in jail or work for the C.I.A. for the same years as his prison term. He chooses the C.I.A. and becomes their top operative. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a top KGB operative with severe daddy and anger management issues. Due to some Nazis and a couple power mad Italians getting their hands on a former German scientist who can make a nuclear bomb, Solo and Kuryakin are forced to work together to both protect and then help the scientist’s daughter, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), infiltrate the bad guys and get her father out.
Naturally Solo and Kuryakin don’t trust each other, like each other, or think the other is worth anything as an operative, and also naturally each one comes to realize they respect and even like the other. There are twists, plans don’t go smoothly, the bad guys are properly hiss-worthy and clever, and yet the Free World is still standing by the end of the movie, as are our heroes.
This is the Origin Story movie. Many times I think doing that is a mistake (The A-Team movie leaps to mind as a total misfire due to being an origin story). Comparing to the Mission: Impossible series -– which is completely legit since they’re properties originally from the same time period and also both about spies –- the MI movies were updated perfectly, and in the first movie there is no origin story – we join the team midway through an assignment and just roll on from there.
However, even though this property is pretty much as old as Mission: Impossible, its basic conceit -– East works with West against mutual enemies for the overall safety of the world -– needs the Cold War to succeed, and the filmmakers wisely chose to keep this movie set in the 1960’s. (It also makes it a companion to, versus a direct competitor of, both the Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises. Since it was created originally to be Bond on TV, keeping it in the 60’s is doubly smart.)
The period settings are really well done, with just a few things that might look too new, most of which are spy or evil bad guy items and so, therefore, acceptable to be a little futuristic. However, most of this movie is firmly set in 1963 technology, meaning that there isn’t a lot of technology on display, and what there is of it is relatively simple.
However, as with Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, there’s a lot of humor. While the movie isn’t a comedy, there were plenty of laugh out loud moments.
There’s an early fight scene that could have used better editing -– I could clearly tell that it wasn’t Cavill and Hammer fighting but their stunt doubles -– but otherwise, nothing pulled me out of the movie. There are some split screen sequences that are a throwback to the TV show. I liked these but they also had a handheld camera feel to them (and I loathe the handheld camera craze in anything, action movies in particular), so these weren’t my favorite parts, but they moved the action along in a very different way, which was good.
This is a Guy Ritchie film, and this movie cements that he’s one of my favorite directors working today. I truly enjoy his movies, and they never feel like he’s making the same movie over and over again.
If you were a Man From U.N.C.L.E. fan, there’s enough of the spirit of the show in this movie to satisfy you, without it being a direct copy, which would fall flat today. But even though the movie is set in the same time period, everything else has been updated.
In addition to Cavill being half a foot taller than the original Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), Hammer is easily a foot taller than the original Kuryakin (David McCallum) – which is utilized in the movie – so if you’re expecting the same Solo and Kuryakin, sorry, these are the newer models, with very different backstories and mannerisms. But the actors do a good job with their roles, and I certainly had no complaints about seeing them onscreen.
There’s also no smoking at all, which, for a movie set in the cigarette-loving 60’s is a bit off, but it’s understandable why the filmmakers chose not to be authentic in that way. There is drinking, but a lot less than happened in the 60’s, too. And the women aren’t treated like things or window dressing, but actually important characters in their own rights, which I’m all for.
Basically, this is a mashup of Mad Men and the Mission: Impossible movies and I mean that as a compliment. It’s a movie about spy craft when everyone wore suits and couture dresses and saved the world using rudimentary technology and their wits and skills alone. It’s a fun movie, and I hope it does well enough to launch the sequels it’s clearly set itself up for.
So, yes, it’s got the fun “smooth spies from different cultures saving the world” vibe of the original, but otherwise the new Man From U.N.C.L.E. is its own new movie, and that’s a very good thing.