Okay, here’s the bottom line, even though it’s at the very top of this review:
If you’ve never seen an episode of the television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – which is entirely possible, seeing as the show was produced nearly fifty years ago (fifty??? Seriously?) – then this DVD is not for you.
It’s not that you won’t understand it. It’s got a simple by-the-numbers plot, and even if you don’t know the two main characters, there’s enough of an introduction to figure out their motives. Good guys versus bad guys. Period.
But what you won’t understand is why anybody would go to the trouble of creating this run-of-the-mill movie-of-the-week. The hackneyed plot was stale when screenwriter Michael Sloan came up with it (and apparently warmed over yet again just a few years later when Sloan wrote The Return of the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman.) There’s not much drama, not much suspense, not much humor.
If, on the other hand, you were a fan of the original MFU, then there’s no way you can avoid looking at this recently released DVD from CBS Entertainment. You’ll do it out of curiosity, not to mention nostalgia for the old series, the cool gadgets, and the two leads.
You’ll be disappointed, of course. Oh, you might catch a glimpse of what this reunion could have been in a few sequences. That would be whenever the two leads, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin (played, respectively, by the ever-enjoyable Robert Vaughn and David McCallum) actually share time together on the same screen. The chemistry is still there – the camaraderie, the sense of fun, the teasing jibes – but Mr. Sloan does everything he can to separate them, sending them off on their own to deal with “the plot.”
As for that plot (such as it is):
After years of supposed nonexistence, THRUSH, the diabolical spy organization that was U.N.C.L.E.’s primary opponent in TMFU, resurfaces in a big way, downing a B-52 and stealing its nuclear warhead payload. At the same time, Justin Sepheran (Anthony Zerbe), a former THRUSH bigwig, escapes from prison and sends a ransom demand to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. He wants $350 million – and he wants it delivered by the man who put him away: Napoleon Solo.
One problem: Solo’s been out of the spy business for fifteen years. He’s now a computer salesman who spends his spare time losing money at the gambling table. Yet he’s sentimental enough that he’s kept his old U.N.C.L.E. communicator pen, which signals him during an inopportune moment. U.N.C.L.E.’s new chief operative in New York, Sir John Raleigh (Patrick Macnee), offers to pay off Solo’s gambling debts if he’ll carry out this one little mission. Solo, whom we suspect is bored silly at his job, says yes – but informs Sir John that he’ll need the assistance of his old partner, Illya Kuryakin.
One problem: Kuryakin, too, has been out of the spy business for fifteen years. He’s now a fashion designer. And he’s packing a big grudge against U.N.C.L.E…
On a superficial level, that sounds workable. Zerbe is a more-than-capable character actor. And the inimitable Macnee (forever identified with The Avengers, which aired during the same era as MFU) is a worthy replacement for Leo G. Carroll, who passed away in 1972. But sadly, the level of writing never rises above the basics. Macnee is stuck at headquarters delivering exposition, while an annoying enforcement agent named Kowalski tags along with Solo. Everything about U.N.C.L.E. has changed. New York headquarters is now hidden behind a novelty shop, rather than Del Floria’s tailor shop. The familiar U.N.C.L.E. special gun is now “in the special U.N.C.L.E. wing of the Smithsonian.” We learn why Illya left U.N.C.L.E. – betrayed by a double agent named “Janus” (really, what else would you expect from a man known only as “Janus”?). However, we’re never told why Napoleon resigned. Wouldn’t that be equally important?
The script doesn’t bother to delve into how either agent picked his new career post-U.N.C.L.E. The movie’s “innocent” (always a trademark of the original show) is a Russian ballerina (played by Gayle Hunicutt) who is being used as a pawn by THRUSH. There’s not much chemistry between her and Solo (she’s more excited by the site of legendary British agent “JB” (George Lazenby), who helps them out during a wild chase in Las Vegas).
In terms of writer Sloan’s characterization of our heroes, Illya fares better than Solo; the girls still swoon for him, and he’s fit enough to perform the prerequisite acrobatics that allow him to retrieve an explosive cap from his shoe while handcuffed to an overhead pipe. Solo is out of practice; he’s ribbed mercilessly by the much younger Kowalski, and is tagged with a knockout dart and winged by a bullet during the mission. And despite being portrayed as something of a bon vivant in the series, he’s reduced to noshing on a hot dog during an early walk-and-talk scene with Illya. Oh, the humanity!
Do Solo and Kuryakin manage to save the world? Of course. By the end of the movie, it’s hinted that the pair will be working together again soon. But it was not to be. Reportedly, Viacom had an option to do more of the movies, and the actors were willing – but the film didn’t recoup its expenses and that was that.
For years, rumors of a Man from U.N.C.L.E. remake have circulated around Hollywood. Retreads of The Avengers; I, Spy; The Wild, Wild West, and other Sixties fare, have left me unenthusiastic about such possibilities. However, the success of 2009’s Star Trek reboot evidently inspired Warner Bros. to turn up the heat on the project. After hearing that Steven Soderbergh, who did a nice job re-envisioning the Sixties’ “Rat Pack” classic Ocean’s Eleven, would be involved, I actually began to have some hopes for a decent U.N.C.L.E. relaunch, particularly with George Clooney as Napoleon Solo. But Clooney bowed out and, not long after, so did Soderbergh. The current heir apparent as helmer is Guy Ritchie… and I’m back to feeling unenthusiastic. Does this mean Robert Downey, Jr. as Napoleon Solo? How different would that be than Ritchie’s recent take on Sherlock Holmes?
Maybe we’d do well to just go back to enjoying the original episodes.
Paula M. Block