Thursday, August 27, 2015

Guest Post: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Fun, Frothy but Forgettable.

by Jonas Schwartz

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015), the origin story of the successful 1960s TV series, would make a fine placeholder for a year without a Mission Impossible or James Bond movie.  However with Rogue Nation still in the theaters and Spectre landing in November, this light action thriller/comedy feels superfluous and lacking compared to the competition.

In 1963, Former thief and current CIA asset Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, Man Of Steel) smuggles out an East German female mechanic, Gaby Teller, (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina) with a KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, The Social Network), on their heels. 

Teller’s mission is to contact her father, a former Nazi scientist who has been kidnapped and forced to build a nuclear weapon.  Due to the horrific nature of the situation, the US and Soviet Union work together, forcing Solo and Kuryakin to become partners.

The original TV series, which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, ran on NBC from 1964-1968.  James Bond author Ian Fleming was connected to the series, and the show had the flair found in the early Bond films but with a more limited budget. The show never felt derivative.  

This movie, written by director Guy Ritchie and Harry Potter producer Lionel Wigram, captures the mod sixties but doesn’t have a clever enough story to be noteworthy.  The plot steals from every Buddy film since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  

The partnership of an American and Russian agent was better handled in the Bond hit The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  Elements of Gaby Teller can be found in many Bond heroines, including From Russia With Love’s (1963) Tatiana Romanova and Thunderball’s (1965) Domino Vitali.

Even the slick, stylish villainess Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) is minor compared to Bond femme fatales Fatima Blush (played in Never Say Never Again (1983) by Barbara Carrera) and Fiona Volpe (played in Thunderball by Luciana Paluzzi). Though she has that cool cat voice and nonchalance when committing atrocious crimes, she becomes an ancillary villain, one easily dispatched.

Ritchie uses split screens to pump up the tension in action scenes and uses black humor even when the heroes are in danger to thrill the audience. The opening sequence and a scene involving a truck and speedboat are the most fun. Ritchie and Wigram also use script editing to mix the event sequences out of chronological order, which leads to pleasant surprises.  

The women’s performances fare better than the men's. Vikander is a striking damsel in distress. While her heroes are manipulators by trade, she is the moral center and adds a sense of integrity to the gang. Though her role is underwritten, Debicki is delightfully venomous. In one delicious moment, she poisons a character then glides down to the sofa like a snake about to swallow a horse whole. Hammer and Cavill are more mechanical than early Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cavill’s robotic voice is meant to be suave but dulls the senses. Hammer’s Russian accent slips in and out.

The best part of the film is the pitch perfect score by Daniel Pemberton, featuring lounge music by Roberta Flack, Nina Simone and Peppino Gagliardi. The cocktail sound fits perfectly with the bubbly champagne tone.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is reminiscent not only of Bond and Mission Impossible but also this summer’s sleeper hit Spy. That Bond spoof, starring Melisa McCarthy in her best role, captures the themes, humor and action that U.N.C.L.E lacks with a cast more game than the one found here.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.


  1. Wonderful review, Jonas. As someone who saw this splendid 60s TV series as a kid, I thought this captured its essence superbly. The "Ritichie" touches a marvelous addition, as well as the equally excellent women characters. I plan on heading back to the cinema for another U.N.C.L.E. screening soon because of this.

  2. What can I say, but I loved it-it entertained me better than a second or third season U.N.C.L.E. episode.