The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgConfession time. I’ve never seen an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – the dated mid-60s TV show starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. The two worked as ancillary superspies for a global covert intelligence agency during the Cold War. The series lasted a mere 4 seasons but apparently it made enough of a lasting impression to inspire this movie. In my jaded estimation, turning a TV show into a feature film seems like another lazy attempt to start a franchise. Perhaps the motivation of the producers is a bit calculating, but I found this to be nothing less than an effervescent cocktail of a spy thriller. It’s a handsome production.

Speaking of handsome, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. stars Superman and the Lone Ranger. That’s Brit Henry Cavill as American Napoleon Solo and American Armie Hammer as Soviet Illya Kuryakin. It’s debateable, but I dare say neither actor has ever been more charismatic on screen than they are here. The two trade wisecracks with flair and panache, each one playing a game of one-upmanship that’s so delightfully fun you can’t help but smile. Cavill also banters with Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki as Victoria Vinciguerra, a devastatingly beautiful but icy Italian villain. Cavill tosses off quips with compelling insouciance. The words delivered with such clarity they sound almost too lyrical to be coming from an American, but the fantasy works nonetheless. This is how we wish we spoke. Like some long lost conversation between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, their flirtatious exchanges are captivating.

What sets this apart from today’s bombastic assaults is that the approach is breezily elegant. This bright, sparkling concoction is a period piece mixture of swanky espionage, jazzy lounge pop instrumentals and chic fashions. James Bond author Ian Fleming contributed to the original concept of the TV show and that’s immediately obvious when watching this film. It oozes the aesthetic of that British Secret Service agent in every frame. Daniel Pemberton’s light snappy arrangements should be recognized. His pop music selections suggest Hugo Montenegro’s work on the TV series as well as Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin with stirring élan. Surprisingly he excludes Jerry Goldsmith’s popular theme song. The omission isn’t missed however as the dulcet tones present effectively transport viewers back to the bossa nova of another time and place.

Costume designer Joanna Johnston also deserves a special mention. Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo is the most nattily attired secret agent I’ve ever seen. In one scene he sports a large blue windowpane plaid suit inspired by Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair. He’s talking with nemesis Victoria Vinciguerra in a black and white number that’s an homage to Cruella de Vil. The two look marvelous. Let’s not forget Swedish Alicia Vikander as the equally stunning but spunky Gaby, an East German mechanic recruited to be an unlikely ally. At one point she models an orange and cream wool camo-print mini-dress that is utterly Twiggy-esque.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a pleasant refreshment. It’s not the most urgent story you’ll see at the multiplex this year but it is entertaining. Guy Ritchie has directed this flick with the same swagger he brought to Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey, Jr. And Jude Law were a dashing pair and Ritchie extracts that same palpable chemistry between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. They have never been better. 2015 has seen its fair share of undercover thrillers. There was Kingsman: The Secret Service, the comedy Spy and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. All saw decent success. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. proves there’s room for one more. Its sexy take is a satisfying addition to the mix. Granted it’s superficial, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. This should be a welcome diversion to tide the spy fan over until Spectre, the 24th Bond film, is released on November 6th.


19 Responses to “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

  1. Sums up my feelings damn well. I really enjoyed how there was this disorienting mix of accents and nationalities going on. An American playing a Russian, a Brit playing an American, a Swede playing a German and an Aussie playing an. . . Italian? I think? Only Guy Ritchie could get away with this. Wait, no. More specific: only The Man from U.N.C.L.E. could get away with this. 😉


  2. Fine review. My plans changed so I won’t see this until Friday, but I’m really looking forward to it.


    • Generally I don’t enjoy the idea of movies made from TV shows. Remember The Avengers – that 1998 adaptation of the British spy TV series about secret agents John Steed and Emma Peel? It starred Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman. Anyway, this was so much better.


      • “The Avengers” wasn’t the only big screen version based on a popular 1960’s spy show that tanked. Remember “I Spy”(about a tennis pro and his trainer who were secret agents for the U.S. Government that were played by Bill Cosby and Robert Culp) and “The Saint”(also based on a 1960’s British spy show that starred Roger Moore as Simon Templar)? I fondly remember the day “The Wild Wild West” came out in 1999 that was based on the 1960’s TV show starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline as secret agents for the government in the Old West and Kenneth Brannum as Dr. Loveless???? This movie was awful in terms of what they did to Robert Conrad’s beloved show from the 1960’s


  3. Just like the rest I really don’t enjoy the idea of movies deprived from TV shows…While “Mission:Impossible” continues to flourish at the boxoffice and successfully so,there have been countless movies based on TV shows that were dismal failures at the boxoffice. I too remember the big screen version of “The Avengers” which was an adaptation of a 1960’s British espionage series starring Ralph Finnes and Uma Thurman that tanked badly…who remembers Sean Connery(aka James Bond)playing a villain? That formula didn’t worked. Who remembers Barry Sonnenfeld’s big screen version based on “The Wild,Wild West” with Will Smith that was a disaster before it hit the theaters. Who remembers the big screen version based on “I Spy”(Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson in the roles originally played by Bill Cosby and Robert Culp ),and who can’t forget the big screen version based on another 1960’s British TV show “The Saint” with Val Kilmer as Simon Templar(originally played by Roger Moore in the 60’s version)……Anyways,it took them almost 3 decades to bring “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” to the big screen and this one didn’t disappoint it’s hardcore fans that basically grew up during the 1960’s when this was one of the biggest hits on television.


    • You do a great job listing some notable failures of TV shows that were adapted into feature films. I remmeber all of those. Perhaps that’s why I had such low expectations for this. As I mention in my review, I was a stranger to this series. I rather enjoyed it.


  4. The plot is very simple but I really enjoyed this movie. I wish it was doing better at the box office so we could get a sequel.


  5. I am thrilled to read this snappy chic review! Up until now all I had seen were bad reviews and the person didn’t seem to get the movie or the idea at all which you do! Thank you!


  6. Great review, Mark! I can’t wait to see this one. Just looks so fun!


  7. You didn’t use the word stylish! I loved how you kept away from that. Every other reviewer used it. Great creative alternatives. I didn’t expect to like this as much as I did. The accents, the quips. It was fun. 4 stars


  8. this film was so stylishly done..had Guy Ritchie all over it..I loved that part of it and the great chemistry the 3 leads had. They saved this film as I wasn’t thrilled with the story or the evil couple.. they didn’t knock me out..but they were still stylish!! 😀


  9. Turning a dusty series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. into a film does seem pretty lazy, but this movie surprised me with how fun it could be too. I agree that Hammer and Cavill have never been more charismatic. For Cavill I don’t feel like it takes much though, since I feel like most roles I see him in are pretty dull. The game up one-upmanship between the pair is very entertaining. Your description of the film as “a period piece mixture of swanky espionage, jazzy lounge pop instrumentals, and chich fashions” is an apt one. You’re right that Pemberton’s snappy arrangements and Joanna Johnston’s costume design are both worth mentioning. My major complaint though is Ritchie’s extreme dedication to his own style. There are times when his ridiculous editing and visuals trump storytelling in a bad way, like the assault on the villain’s hideout, which is just a bizarre splitscreen montage.


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