GUEST REVIEW: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

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

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

By Nicolás Suszczyk, Guest Writer

I never fully watched The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I wasn’t born when it was released and no DVDs (and few TV telecasts) where released in my country, at least in my teens.

As a Bond fan, of course, I enjoyed many rip-offs, from the funny ones like Get Smart, Johnny English and Kingsman: The Secret Service to the more realistic ones like Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible saga, the Harry Palmer films and a few modern-espionage films like The International.

Still, I barely knew about Napoleon Solo and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. except for the fact it was one of the many ingredients of the ‘60s spy phenomenon and the Ian Fleming connection with the character of Napoleon Solo. I was kind of interested, but I never ended up closely following the episodes as I did with Zorro, Batman, The Saint or other cult TV series.

So, what follows “review” of someone in the mid-20s who hasn’t properly watched the original TV series produced by Norman Felton but has an idea on it.

I had a free afternoon so I booked the tickets on a close theatre in my hometown in Buenos Aires. The screening was around 6:30 p.m. As I entered the theatre, all the seats were empty! I wondered if some of the negative reviews had such an impact on people that left Napoleon Solo a bit… “solo” (if you speak Spanish, you’ll get the word game).

A few minutes later, people appeared — not many, five or seven more, making around ten people if you count me. On a side note, I catched the SPECTRE teaser trailer before the film. I’ve always been unlucky in finding a Bond trailer on a screening, something that only happened before in 2002 when the Die Another Day trailer popped up before My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the movie my grandmother took me to watch.

And then, Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. filled the screen.

Overall, the film is enjoyable… enough to relax after a tough day at work, at least. It looks indeed as a movie set in the 1960s: a masterful work of the cinematographer, the costume designer, and Daniel Pemberton in the music department.

There’s a lot of humor like the one you’ll find in Kingsman: The Secret Service, but a lot less exaggerated, and more in the vein of the 1972 TV series The Persuaders. The Henry Cavill-Armie Hammer relationship onscreen is in a way very similar to the Roger Moore-Tony Curtis one.

A scene of Napoleon Solo (Cavill) comfortably drinking wine and having sandwiches while sitting in a truck as Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer) gun fighting his enemies on a boat is particularly effective and funny for the inclusion of “Che Vuole Questa Musica Stasera” (sung by Peppino Gagliardi) as both events are taking place. This rivalry that slowly turns into friendship is akin to The Persuader’s pilot “Interlude.”

Other of the film’s pros is the backdrop created for the protagonists: Solo being an art thief working for the CIA on probation and Kuryakin having with anger management problems. The girls, Gaby (Alicia Vikander) and Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), are in a way the stereotypical “good girls” and “bad girls” you’ll find in any retro spy series. They are not complex characters, but they fit very well into the film.

More into the 60s influence, the scene where Solo is tortured seems to have a small nod to the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale, where Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) provides a “mind torture” to Peter Sellers’ Evelyn Tremble, aka James Bond 007, when uncle Rudi shows a video of the Nazi “achievements” as the hero is tied to an electric chair.

A special mention is deserved by Hugh Grant as Waverly, whose presence itself is more than welcome and adds a special touch to the film with his comic quips.

There is, however, a big negative point in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: the editing. It tried to be artistic and it perhaps succeeded in the desired effect, but the fast camera shots, the flashbacks and the split-screen shots are very distracting. It happens, even in a more confusing way, the same that in the shakey cam shots of Quantum of Solace.

The film’s ending offers a nice cliffhanger, maybe predictable, but very similar to the current “reboot” movies where we see the inception of what has been established before. There is a word association to the last line said by Waverly to the relationship a character had with other, something that would probably get lost in translation for many non-English speaking countries.

Verdict: Love the ‘60s spy movies with lots of humor? Watch it!

1962: Hope and Crosby provide 007 a `Road’ map

Bob Hope, left, and Bing Crosby in the opening to The Road to Hong Kong

Five months before the debut of Dr. No, the final Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” movie came out, The Road to Hong Kong. The film, we suspect by coincidence, provided a road map to the future of 007 movies.

The 1962 movie had some major departures from previous “Road” movies. It was produced in the U.K. and was released by United Artists. The earlier films in the series had been produced in Hollywood and released by Paramount. Dorothy Lamour, the female lead of the previous Road movies, makes a cameo as herself but Joan Collins is the main female lead.

The change in locale meant the Norman Panama-Melvin Frank production (both would write the script, Panama directed and Frank produced; the duo had written the 1946 Road to Utopia) would take advantage of U.K. movie talent: Syd Cain was one of the art directors. Maurice Binder designed the main titles. Walter Gotell is one of the main lieutenants of a mysterious organization — stop us if you’ve heard this before — trying to take over the world. Bob Simmons shows up late in the movie as an astronaut in the employ of the villainous organization.

What’s more, there are “animated” sets (designed by Roger Furse) at the villain’s lair that would do Ken Adam proud. Two future participants in the 1967 Casino Royale (Peter Sellers and David Niven) show up in cameos. Did we mention Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin making cameos at the end? Well, they do.

If you’ve never seen The Road to Hong Kong, you can CLICK HERE and watch the 91-minute film on YouTube (at least until it gets taken off that Web site). While a comedy, it is a preview of the more fantastic Bond movies that would emerge a few years later, starting with 1967’s You Only Live Twice.

Casino Royale’s 45th anniversary: Oh no, 007!

April Fool’s Day is as good as any occasion to note this month marks the 45th anniversary of Charles K. Feldman’s Casino Royale, the producer’s 1967 send-up of 007.

Feldman, one-time agent (Albert R. Broccoli was one of his employees) turned producer, was nobody’s fool. He had produced films in a variety of genres such as 1948’s Red River (uncredited), 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, 1955’s The Seven Year Itch and 1965’s What’s New Pussycat.

So, when he acquired the film rights to Ian Fleming’s first 007 novel in the early 1960s, Feldman recognized it had commercial potential even as the film series produced by one time associate Broccoli and Harry Saltzman was getting underway in 1962. (CLICK HERE for a post on Jeremy Duns’s Debrief blog for a more detailed history.)

Feldman tried to entice director Howard Hawks, his one-time colleague on Red River. Hawks was interested but the director backed out after seeing an early print of Dr. No with Sean Connery.

Feldman pressed on, signing distinguished screenwriter Ben Hecht to come up with a screenplay. Details of Hecht’s work were reported last year by Jeremy Duns in the U.K. Telegraph newspaper. Hecht died in 1964, while still working on the project.

By now, Eon’s series was reaching its peak of popularity with 1964’s Goldfinger and 1965’s Thunderball. Broccoli and Saltzman agreed to a co-production deal with Kevin McClory, holder of the film rights for Thunderball. James Bond, The Legacy, the 2002 book by John Cork and Bruce Scivally, presents a narrative of on-and-off talks between Feldman, Broccoli, Saltzman and United Artists, the studio releasing the Broccoli-Saltzman movies. In the end, talks broke down. (Behind the scenes, Broccoli and Saltzman had their own tensions to deal with, including Saltzman’s outside ventures such as his Harry Palmer series of films.).

So Feldman opted to go for farce, but not in a small way. His movie had an estimated budget, according to IMDB.com. of $12 million. The Cork-Scivally book put the figure at $10.5 million. Either way, it was more than the $9.5 million budget of You Only Live Twice, the fifth entry in the Broccoli-Saltzman series. Twice’s outlay included $1 million for Ken Adam’s SPECTRE volcano headquarters set.

Feldman’s film didn’t have that kind of spectacle. But he did pay money (or Columbia Pictures’ money) for talent such as John Huston (one of five credited directors), David Niven (playing the “original” James Bond, brought out of retirement, who implies the Sean Connery version of the Broccoli-Saltzman series was assigned the James Bond name by MI6), Peter Sellers, Orson Welles, Ursula Andress (now famous because of Dr. No), William Holden, Woody Allen and….well CLICK HERE to view the entire cast and crew.

Casino Royale, however, was less than the sum of its impressive parts. The humor is uneven, it doesn’t really have a story, despite employing a number screenwriters, including Wolf Mankowitz, who introduced Broccoli and Saltzman to each other. (For a more sympathetic view, CLICK HERE for a long essay on the subject.)

The’67 Casino managed a reported worldwide gross of $41.7 million. That was good in its day, though less than a third of Thunderball’s $141.7 million global box office.

Much has been written since 1967 about the stressful production, including reported feuds between Sellers and Welles. Perhaps all that took a toll on the film’s producer. Feldman died in May 1968, a little more than 13 months after Casino Royale’s premier, at age 64.

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