REVIEW: Guy Ritchie adds an edge to U.N.C.L.E.

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

U.N.C.L.E. movie poster

Director Guy Ritchie, after stripping out some familiar memes from his version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., adds in some edge that often wasn’t present in the 1964-68 television series.

It mostly works, although things don’t really kick in until the film’s second half. The first half is a little flat.

The proceedings get reinvigorated when Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo finds himself in peril starting at the midway point of the movie. From that point on, both Cavill and Armie Hammer’s version of Illya Kuryakin get more traction. Make no mistake. The movie remains light and breezy, but there’s a feeling of increased stakes.

The second half also is when Hugh Grant’s Waverly, a cagey British spymaster, starts to have a slightly bigger role. Grant, who turned 53 when U.N.C.L.E. was in production, is decades younger than Leo G. Carroll was when he played Waverly in the series. But Grant’s version is just as manipulative, if not more so, than the original.

Ritchie, who co-wrote the script with Lionel Wigram, essentially tore down the original show. No secret headquarters, no vast worldwide organization. Even if a sequel is made, it’s doubtful any of that would make a comeback in a Guy Ritchie U.N.C.L.E. universe.

Instead, the writers emphasize the basic characters — Solo, Kuryakin and Waverly. Even here, there are notable differences from the show. Solo’s still a womanizer who likes the finer things in life, but has a back story of being an art thief. Kuryakin is given a back story even more at odds with the show (which had very little background for the character).

Ritchie also emphasizes the Cold War setting in a way the original didn’t. It’s the initial layer of edge added by the director. The story begins in East Berlin as Solo, here a CIA agent, is assigned to “extract” Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a mechanic whose estranged father is a missing nuclear scientist.

That’s the beginning of a long sequence where Solo and Gaby are pursued by the seemingly indestructible Kuryakin, here a KGB operative. Things move quickly and it holds the viewer’s interest.

By comparison, the rest of the first half, while not bogging down, doesn’t move as quickly. We get the set up.

A mysterious organization is close to building an atomic bomb. The U.S. and Soviet Union decide they have to work together. Solo and Kuryakin size each other up (an excuse to add more of the back story the screenwriters have devised). Gaby is to be part of the mission because she has an uncle who works for the company run by evil mastermind Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki).

Besides all that exposition, Ritchie is setting things up for the second half, but not in a straight forward way.

The director pays lip service to U.N.C.L.E.’s idea of having an “innocent” be part of the plot. Instead, it’s sleight of hand, introducing a complication that — stop me if you’ve heard this before — adds edge to the film.

Despite all the alterations in their backgrounds, Cavill and Hammer do provide recognizable versions of Solo and Kuryakin. Each one ups the other equally. Each saves the other’s life. They eventually do operate as a a team.

Once Solo gets captured — and is being tortured by a former Nazi who’s pretty adept at it — the preliminaries are over and film gets down to business. Cavill is suitably suave and the British actor is convincing enough as an American who thinks his way out of trouble as much as he fights.

Hammer’s Kuryakin, or rather “Edgier Illya,” is falling for Gaby and Hammer does fine taking advantage of those scenes. “Edgier Illya” has more than a few psychological problems, and Hammer gets to play with that also.

For those who’ve never seen the original series, there really isn’t a need to catch up before seeing the film. For fans of the show, the ones who accept the film as an alternative reality will like it just fine.

One of the highlights of the movie is Daniel Pemberton’s score. It’s more Lalo Schifrin than John Barry, but that fits with Ritchie’s alternate universe U.N.C.L.E.

Some notes, mostly for fans of the show. Norman Felton (1913-2012), the executive producer of the series, is credited as an “executive consultant.” Sam Rolfe (1924-1993), who developed the series and was its first-season producer, receives no credit. Meanwhile, the 1965 Hugo Montenegro arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme is heard for *maybe* five seconds when Solo is checking radio stations while in a truck.

Also, for James Bond fans, a character gets to share the name of a minor villain in Thunderball, although here it’s spelled Count Lippi.

Finally, the end titles show dossiers of the principal characters. It’s an effect similar to, but more subtle than, the little scenes that occur in the end titles of Marvel Studios movies. Fans of the show will likely want to review them to see even more differences, particularly with Waverly’s.

For the Spy Commander, the movie was a tossup in the first half, but the second charged things up. GRADE: B-Plus.

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2 Responses

  1. Totally agree with you, Bill. I’d add that I thought there were a few technical issues that detracted from the fun of the movie. the bit comic-book style captions drove me crazy by pulling my eyes off the film. But I agree with the B+ & think it could be a promising start to a franchise if it gets the chance.

  2. […] blog had a positive review of the U.N.C.L.E. movie. But it was still a flop at the box […]

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