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.

5 U.N.C.L.E. TV stories new fans should see before the movie

The original U.N.C.L.E.s

The original U.N.C.L.E.s

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. hasn’t gotten a lot of exposure since its last broadcast on Jan. 15, 1968. Yet, seemingly against long odds, a big-screen version comes out on Aug. 14.

There are a lot of new fans — particularly those who are fans of actors Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer — who haven’t had a lot of opportunity to catch the original show. With that in mind, here are five U.N.C.L.E. stories from the 1964-68 series that may enhance the experience of new fans ahead of the film.

These aren’t necessarily the very best episodes. But some have elements in common with the movie. Also, this list is intended to include examples from all four seasons of the show. Stories told over two episodes are listed as a single entry here.

The Quadripartite Affair/The Giuoco Piano Affair: These two episodes were filmed together but presented as separate, but related episodes.

Solo verbally jousts with Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) in The Giuoco Piano Affair

Solo verbally jousts with Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) in The Giuoco Piano Affair

Quadripartite was the third episode broadcast. It’s also the first episode where Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) function as a team. There’s plenty of good “bits of business” for both characters.

The story involves a power-hungry woman, Gervaise Ravel (Anne Francis), whose lover, Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelan), is one of the world’s richest men and who’s more than willing to finance her plans. That’s not unlike the new film, where Elizabeth Debicki, is the lead villain.

Giuoco Piano (the seventh episode broadcast) is even better than Quadripartite, showing how manipulative Solo can be. The title comes from a chess gambit that symbolizes Solo’s plan. If James Bond is the blunt instrument, this story demonstrates how Solo is the sharp operator.

Both episodes were written by Alan Caillou, who did intelligence work for the British in World War II. Think an Ian Fleming, who actually went out into the field. Caillou’s two scripts helped define the Kuryakin character. Sam Rolfe, who wrote the pilot, envisioned Kuryakin as a large, massive man. Caillou provided McCallum with the material so the actor could make Illya his own.

Also, the two episodes were directed by Richard Donner, who’d become an A-list film director in the 1970s.

The Never-Never Affair: Through the first season, the show tried to find the right balance of drama and humor. Never-Never, aired late in the season, became the model for future episodes.

"I can't believe everything that's going on, Illya."

Solo and Illya during the theater shootout in The Never-Never Affair

In the story, Solo feels sorry for U.N.C.L.E. translator Mandy Stevenson (Barbara Feldon), who yearns for an adventure. He sends her to get pipe tobacco for U.N.C.L.E. chief Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), while telling her she’s acting as a courier. However, she accidentally is given a valuable microdot covered by the villainous organization, Thrush.

The episode includes a memorable set piece, where a Thrush assassin is firing through a movie theater screen at Solo and Kuryakin, who are having to deal with other Thrush operatives. A high percentage of the jokes work, and writer Dean Hargrove would become one of the main scribes of the series. It was the second episode of show helmed by Joseph Sargent, one of the best directors on the series.

The Foxes and Hounds Affair: A breezy episode that aired early in the show’s second season. The new movie’s tone is supposed to be similar to the second season and Foxes and Hounds is one of the season’s better entries.

U.N.C.L.E. and Thrush are both after a mind-reading machine. That’s pretty fantastic, but no more so than what can be seen in a Marvel Studios film of the 21st century. Both Solo and Kuryakin get chances to shine. We also see that Waverly is perfectly capable of being cold blooded. On top of everything else, Vincent Price is a very good villain who has to watch his back for attacks from a rival in Thrush (Patricia Medina).

The Concrete Overcoat Affair: This two-part episode was edited into a movie for international audiences called The Spy in the Green Hat. Thrush has another ambitious plan that U.N.C.L.E. is trying to foil. But some retired gangsters end up becoming involved and act as a wild card.

This ran during the third season, when the drama-humor balance got out of whack in favor of humor. This Joseph Sargent-directed story reins that in to an extent. There’s also a good scene early in Part II where Solo wants to go save Kuryakin but Waverly disapproves. The U.N.C.L.E. chief relents, but only reluctantly. It’s an unusual moment of drama in a season where that was in short supply.

The Test Tube Killer Affair: In the fourth season, new producer Anthony Spinner wanted to dial the humor way back. This episode, early in the season, is one of the better entries produced by Spinner.

Christopher Jones, center, one of Thrush's "test tube" killers in a fourth-season Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode

Christopher Jones, center, as Greg Martin, in The Test Tube Killer Affair.

Thrush’s Dr. Stoller (Paul Lukas) has been raising young men from childhood to be the perfect killing machines, able to turn their emotions on and off as needed. Stoller’s prize pupil, Greg Martin (Christopher Jones), has been chosen to blow up a dam in Greece. It’s strictly an exercise and the dam has no strategic importance but many will die if Martin succeeds.

Meanwhile, the young killer is highly intelligent — intelligent enough where it appears Solo and Kuryakin may have met their match. The episode has a less-than-happy ending, something not common on the show.

Some U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack titles of note

Daniel Pemberton's Twitter icon

Daniel Pemberton’s Twitter icon

Film Score Reporter published details about The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie’s soundtrack IN A JULY 14 POST. Included was a list of tracks that caught our eye.

The soundtrack, which is due out Aug. 7, a week before the movie, contains both Daniel Pemberton’s score and some vintage 1960s songs. The Spy Commander’s attention was drawn to some of the track titles from the composer’s work. What follows are those tracks, including where they appear on the album.

3. His Name Is Napoleon Solo: When Pemberton was recording the score last year, he tweeted a picture of the sheet music, including this title.

4. Escape From East Berlin: The guess here is part of this track appears on the five-minute trailer for the movie shown at the San Diego Comic Con.

6. Mission: Rome: Pemberton is a fan of Lalo Schifrin. This title suggests an homage to Schifrin’s best-known television theme, Mission: Impossible.

Schifrin also composed the scores for two episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series as well as doing the second-season arrangement for Jerry Goldsmith’s U.N.C.L.E. theme.

7. The Vinciguerra Affair: This refers to the lead villain (Elizabeth Debicki). But it also appears to be an homage to the original 1964-68 series, where each episode’s title had “Affair” as part of the title.

13. Breaking Out (The Cowboy Escapes): It’s known from the trailers that Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) calls Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) “cowboy.” Presumably, this track title is referring to Solo.

The television series didn’t have a true soundtrack album while it was in production. Instead, Hugo Montenegro did new arrangements of music from the series in two albums. A true U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack didn’t occur until music journalist Jon Burlingame produced special edition soundtracks in the 2000s.

Now, if someone, ANYONE, can tell us if the Jerry Goldsmith U.N.C.L.E. theme appears in the movie (even if it’s just int he end titles), the Spy Commander would appreciate it.

U.N.C.L.E. movie’s digital exposure soars during Comic Con

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

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

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie’s exposure on digital media surged more than 14 times during the four days of the San Diego Comic Con, according to a chart ACCOMPANYING A VARIETY STORY.

The story concerned information gathered by ListenFirst Media about what films and television shows got the most exposure during the comic book convention, which has become a major summer marketing exercise for studios.

The ListenFirst data includes “activity across a combination of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Tumblr, Wikipedia, and YouTube,” according to Variety. The U.N.C.L.E. movie’s “digital audience ratings” (or DAR) went from 63,799 on July 5-8 (the four days before the convention) to 925,417 during July 9-12, a 1,350 percent jump, according to the ListenFirst data in the Variety chart. U.N.C.L.E. was No. 4 in DAR for films during the convention.

On Saturday, the movie’s stars — Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki — promoted the film during a convention panel. Warner Bros. also posted a new five-minute trailer online in connection with the convention. The trailer had received more than 800,000 viewings on YouTube by Monday afternoon.

To be sure, U.N.C.L.E. did not crack ListenFirst’s top ten for movies and television shows combined. The No. 1 in the combined category was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, also a Warner Bros. release and also with Henry Cavill.

That movie’s DAR during the convention was 18.4 million, a whopping 4,185 percent increase over the four days before the con. Warners released its first regular trailer for the superhero movie, which comes out in March 2016. That trailer has received more than 20 million viewings on YouTube.

Also, in the movie category, U.N.C.L.E. was a distant No. 4. Besides the Batman v Superman ratings, the No. 2 film was Star Wars: The Force Awakens (6.55 million) and No. 3 was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (3 million).

Still, the digital ratings may be a sign that U.N.C.L.E. — last seen in the 1983 TV movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — may be making a comeback of sorts.

Warners originally scheduled the movie to open in mid-January, not a prime time for movie releases. But the studio shifted the film’s release date to Aug. 14 following test screenings in the summer of 2014.

U.N.C.L.E. stars to promote movie at San Diego Comic Con

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. teaser poster

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. teaser poster

The stars of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie will promote the film at the San Diego Comic Con on July 11, according to a WARNER BROS. PRESS RELEASE.

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, who play Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, are scheduled to be joined by female leads Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki, the studio said in announcing its activities at the convention.

Cavill and Hammer reprise the roles that Robert Vaughn and David McCallum played on the 1964-68 television series. Vikander plays Gaby Teller, the “innocent” of the story while Debicki is the lead villain. The movie, directed by Guy Ritchie, is a different take on U.N.C.L.E., without familiar memes such as the organization’s secret headquarters.

The convention appearance will take place a little more than a month before the U.N.C.L.E. movie’s Aug. 14 release date.

Cavill is doing double duty for Warners at the event. He’s also scheduled to be promote Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice. That movie, which comes out in March 2016, features a conflict between Superman (Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck). It also an attempt to be Warners’ answer to Disney/Marvel’s Avengers franchise. The press release leads off with details about the Batman v Superman promotion.

Cavill first played Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel. He was cast as Solo in U.N.C.L.E. around the time Man of Steel came out in June of that year.

Second U.N.C.L.E. movie trailer arrives

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. teaser poster

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. teaser poster

The second trailer for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. arrived in some U.S. theaters this weekend — or at least one in the Detroit area.

The new longer trailer for the Guy Ritchie-directed film contains several scenes that were part of the teaser trailer released on Feb. 11. But there are some additions. Among them:

Kuryakin as large, powerful man: The character of Illya Kuryakin was created by Sam Rolfe, who wrote the pilot for the 1964-68 television series. Rolfe’s original version was a large “slavic” man.

That changed when 5-foot-7 David McCallum was cast in the role. The character was further refined by writer Alan Caillou in a number of first-season stories.

The movie Kuryakin is going back to the Rolfe version, based on the second trailer. We see Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) complaining to his CIA superior (Jared Harris) that a mission in Berlin was supposed to be “a simple extraction” but that the agent ran into something “barely human.”

That was Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) who, we see, managed to rip off the trunk lid of Solo’s car as he was trying to get away.

More sexual innuendo: The new trailer includes some sexual innuendo between Solo and femme fatale Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) as well as Kuryakin and “innocent” Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). Included: a scene where Our Heroes strap a 1963 version of a track device on Gaby’s thigh.

Different music: The second trailer has different music than the Feb. 11 teaser trailer. There’s no way to tell whether this is from Daniel Pemberton’s score.

Solo in peril: Solo is in an electric chair at one point.

A bit more Waverly: Hugh Grant, the new-look Alexander Waverly, still has only one line (as he did in the teaser trailer) but there’s an additional shot of him in a sequence filmed in Rome.

As of May 31, the official movie website still has THE TEASER TRAILER.

U.N.C.L.E. movie to be promoted at Rome event, fan site says

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

Logo for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie

Cast members of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie will be participate in a media event in Rome this weekend, the HENRY CAVILL NEWS WEBSITE said.

Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer and Elizabeth Debicki will be part of the event, according to the fan website, which writes extensively about Cavill’s various projects.

Cavill and Hammer play Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, the characters portrayed by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum in the 1964-68 series. Debicki plays a new character who appears to be a femme fatale in the film that comes out in mid-August.

Here’s one of the items contained in the Henry Cavill News story. Alicia Malone, who is part of a website called Malone’s Movie Minute took to Twitter to tease the event.

Cavill and Hammer appeared at the recent CinemaCon event in Las Vegas, where upcoming movies are promoted to theater owners.

Rome was one of the main locations for the Guy Ritchie-directed U.N.C.L.E. movie, which was filmed in the late summer and fall of 2013. The movie, set in 1963, has an “origin” story, showing how American Solo and Soviet Kuryakin came to work together. It has a different time line than the show, where U.N.C.L.E. had been formed shortly after World War II.