The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was an undeniable sensation when it aired from 1964-1968. The show’s sly, playful take on the spy genre and the charisma – and hair – of its stars quickly generated a rabid fandom that both pre-dated and rivaled the followers of the original Star Trek series and elevated actors Robert Vaughn (Napoleon Solo) and David McCallum (the mysterious Illya Kuryakin) into near-Beatles-level heartthrobs. But mainstream interest in the U.N.C.L.E. franchise quickly fizzled after the program’s abrupt cancellation midway through season four. It remains a low key cult classic to this day, celebrated at conventions and in fan fiction, and picking up the occasional new devotee whenever it finds its way into late night syndication, but it seems like the only people really clambering for a big budget movie adaptation of the show were a series of high profile filmmakers.
Quentin Tarantino started flirting with the idea of an U.N.C.L.E. film in the late nineties. Steven Soderbergh was officially attached to the project before bowing out over creative differences with Warner Brothers in 2011. Then Guy Ritchie took over and developed his own script with Lionel Wigram. What any of these men saw in the project is debatable. There’s no clear artistic or commercial benefit to an U.N.C.L.E. movie for them, given that none ever seemed invested in the source material, and that a good 98% of the show’s fans are well out of the desired box office demo these days. But they all attempted it, for whatever reason, and Ritchie actually went through with it. And now, 51 years after the show premiered, we finally have a Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie that few – including the obsessive fan writing this review – ever really wanted.
Given its ignoble origins, the movie is remarkably not bad. In the parlance of U.N.C.L.E. fans, it’s like one of the better episodes from the much-maligned season three. The plot, set in 1963, a year before the show premiered, is classic spy flick fodder: When Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist goes missing, the CIA and KGB’s top agents must team up to track him down and prevent a shady new criminal organization from selling a particularly potent nuclear weapon to the highest bidder. The KGB agent, a sarcastic Übermensch named Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), poses as the fiancé of the scientist’s estranged daughter, the plucky and capable Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) in an effort to find her father.
However, the CIA agent, the smarmy art thief-cum-super spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), poses as an art dealer in an effort to get closer to the woman at the heart of the crime syndicate, Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). Essentially, it’s a poor man’s version of the season one episode “The Quadripartite Affair.” Plots thicken, allegiances change, and cold war paranoia and sexual tension threaten to bubble over in equal amounts. The scenery and the people are impossibly pretty. Everyone is dressed fabulously. It’s an empty calorie cinema, a sugar rush of a spy romp that crashes as soon as the credits roll, but it’s an entirely acceptable cheap thrill while it lasts.
There’s no real reason why any of this needed to be under the Man From U.N.C.L.E. brand, though, and the movie’s intermittent nods to the original show rarely do the former any favors.The Gaby character is a fun touch, given that Solo and Kuryakin could never go more than a few episodes without working and/or getting kidnapped with the daughter of a scientist, and it’s nice that Illya’s fondness for smart, strong women was not lost in adaptation. Hugh Grant’s Mr. Waverly is a pleasant burst of craggy Britishness that does the original man, Leo G. Carroll, justice. But at its most faithful, the movie, much like Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes offerings, often feels like the work of a moderately talented fan fiction writer throwing around a mix of light nods to the source material and heavy-handed bursts of homoeroticism (which the show did better, anyway).
Then there’s the issue of Cavill and Hammer, who would have been perfectly fine as fast-talking spies by any other name, but just aren’t up to the task of recreating one of the best duos in television history. Cavill’s smarmy, exaggerated speech makes for an almost pitch-perfect Robert Vaughn impersonation – a truly perplexing occurrence, given that he claims to have never watched an episode of the show – but he lacks the warmth that his predecessor brought to the role. Hammer’s Kuryakin is satisfactorily sarcastic, but his Bruce Banner-esque anger management issues are a poor substitute for the air of mystery that McCallum cultivated as Illya. And his hair is neither blond nor shaggy enough. Together, they suffer from a lack of charisma. While both men are utterly competent and conventionally attractive, Napoleon and Illya could have just as easily been played, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story-style, by U.N.C.L.E. dolls for all of the personality they bring to the screen.
These are more the qualms of a fan than a critic, though. Whatever reasons Ritchie did have for doing this movie, this clearly isn’t a film by or for U.N.C.L.E. nerds and while that’s frustrating from the perspective of an overly possessive fan, it’s understandable when you remove that bias. The U.N.C.L.E. faithful have neither the size nor clout of the Star Trek or Star Wars, communities, which leaves whoever touches the franchise with a lot more freedom to do whatever the hell they want with it. And what Ritchie has done is at least more in the spirit of the original and less abysmal than what happened to the similarly-minded Avengers remake in 1998.
It’s a fun enough movie – probably even more enjoyable when viewed without the burden of multiple decades of fandom looming over the entire experience. So I’ll step back and let others enjoy the casual thrill ride for what it is and take solace in the fact that it could have been so much worse. Besides, it’s still better than that episode when Solo did the Watusi with a gorilla.