‘Man’ is so bad, you’ll cry ‘U.N.C.L.E.’

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For Digital First Media

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E” is the latest ‘60s era television show to be resurrected as a movie.

As James Bond became an international movie phenomenon, U.S. television networks sought to capitalize on the public’s appetite for spy dramas. Ian Fleming, the creator of 007, conceived the weekly series, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” It commenced in 1964 and played for four seasons.

The pilot revolved around the American master spy, Napoleon Solo, portrayed by Robert Vaughan. At the time, the actor was best known for his Oscar-nominated supporting role in “The Young Philadelphians” and as one of the gunfighting mercenaries in John Sturges’ classic Western, “The Magnificent Seven.”

In the pilot, Ilya Kuryakin, was a Soviet agent, portrayed by Scottish actor, David McCallum. He was a relatively minor character. However, as the show morphed from pilot to television series, Kuryakin was elevated to being Solo’s partner. Although they formed a two-man team, the show’s title remained singular, rather than plural.

The show made its debut during the height of the Cold War. However, the show was premised on the notion that Solo and Kuryakin were working in collaboration for U.N.C.L.E., a multi-national aggregate of spies from various countries. The agency was under the supervision of a tweedy Englishman, Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll).

Besides the recurring three characters, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” featured an impressive array of guest stars. In the first season, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy appeared in an episode, a year before they were paired together on the “Star Trek” series as Captain Kirk and Spock. Before she became Agent 99 on the satirical treatment of the spy genre, “Get Smart,” Barbara Feldon appeared in one episode. Similarly, before he starred in “I Spy” series, Robert Culp appeared on the show. Other guest stars included Jill Ireland (who was then married to McCallum), Ricardo Montalban, Joan Crawford, Janet Leigh, Joan Blondell, Elsa Lanchester, Jack Palance, Kurt Russell, Nancy Sinatra, Cesar Romero, Vincent Price, and Carroll O’Connor. Just for good measure, Sonny and Cher once appeared on the show.

The show was wildly popular. On five occasions, additional footage was shot and used to pad episodes into feature length films, which played theatrically. It also spawned a free-standing spin off, “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.,” which starred Stefanie Powers.

The new cinematic version of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” starts off promisingly. The screen fills with a succession of banner newspaper headlines. They proclaim the end of World War II, the demarcation of Berlin into east and western sections, Winston Churchill’s declaration that a metaphorical Iron Curtain had descended on Europe, and the advent of the nuclear arms race. This efficaciously creates a sense of time and space, while evoking the tensions between the so-called Free World and the red menace of Communism.

In the television series, the co-protagonists were virtuous men, who heroically battled the evil minions of T.H.R.U.S.H. This film concocts new back stories for Solo (Henry Cavill, Superman in “Man of Steel”) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer from “The Lone Ranger’). They are both burdened with some serious baggage.

Here, Solo had been a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II. After the hostilities ended, he remained in Europe and became a black marketeer, selling purloined antiques and objets d’art. Solo was arrested and enroute to prison, when the C.I.A. intervened. They recognized that Solo’s skill set could exploited to advantage as a secret agent.

In this film version, Kuryakin’s father had been a trusted confidante of Josef Stalin. However, he was caught misappropriating state assets and had been exiled to Siberia. His wife became a wantonly promiscuous hussy. The film posits that Kuryakin is driven by a deep-seated sense of shame. He has the distinction of being the youngest man ever recruited by the K.G.B. We are told that within three years, Kuryakin became its leading agent.

In an opening vignette, Solo is assigned by the C.I.A. to rescue Gaby Teller (Alicia Wikander from “Ex Machina”) from East Berlin, where she is working as a car mechanic. Her father, a nuclear physicist, has been kidnapped and is being forced to construct an atomic bomb.

Kuryakin is tasked with stopping Solo at all costs. The two battle in a near fatal car chase. This scene is ineptly mounted and disconcertingly unexciting.  It is a portent of the film’s unengaging narrative text.

Solo and Kuryakin are ordered by their respective bosses to let bygones be bygones. They must team up together and rescue Gaby’s father from the clutches of Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). The villainess is developing a nuclear bomb, which she plans to sell to some nefarious miscreants.

As directed by Guy Ritchie, the film is a stylish affair, replete with plenty of retro touches that recall the era. However, this fails to compensate for the fact that the screenplay by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram is horribly disjointed. The film’s only dramatic tension is derived from waiting in vain for Cavill’s hair to assume a Superman forehead curl.

The casting of the leads is atrocious. Both Vaughan and McCallum were relatively short men with unimpressive physiques. However, their characters overcame formidable adversaries with their cunning wiles and the adroit use of jiu-jitsu. By contrast, Cavill and Hammer are both huge, heavily muscled men, who move without any kinesthetic grace. It is unclear which one of them sports a worse accent. Cavill’s American accent is stilted in delivery and thoroughly unconvincing. Hammer’s attempt at sounding Russian seems patterned on Boris Badenov from “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show.”

The underlying bromance between Cavill and Hammer, crucial to the success of the film, remains entirely inert. As if to establish the heterosexual bona fides of the leads, each is assigned a prospective paramour. However, there is decided absence of onscreen chemistry between Cavill and Debicki or Hammer and Vikander.

There is plenty of inane rhetoric. This includes a vignette in which Solo and his nemesis, Victoria Vinciguerra, exchange extended segments of expository dialogue to explain what is going on to the audience.

The film struggles unsuccessfully to find a tone. It is supposed to be an action dominated spy film or campy parody of the genre? Particularly disturbing is the film’s glib attitude toward torture and a man being burnt to death.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E” would have been far better served if it had been allowed to remain a fond memory, rather than being recycled as this cinematic tripe like this.

This movie is painful to endure. It is so bad, long before the conclusion, you’ll cry “uncle,” just to be spared the torture of seeing the whole thing.

*1/2 PG-13 (for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity) 116 minutes. Warner Brothers

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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