I was certainly curious how close The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would stick to the television series that starred Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as his Russian sidekick, Illya Kuryakin.
If the movie tried to replicate the Vaughn and McCallum pairing, it could get derailed in a hurry. They were a definitive television team, like Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in I Spy or the entire Mission Impossible task force.
Imitation is tough, especially when it is character-based. What Tom Cruise did with his Mission Impossible films is simply buy the name, the tense Lalo Schifrin theme music and the opening tone-setting assignment message that self destructs in five seconds. After that, there is nothing that even remotely connects the Mission Impossible movies with the television series.
Guy Ritchie, however, who wrote, produced and directed Man from U.N.C.L.E., takes the opposite approach.
Ritchie sought to do the television show justice by doing it one better and he hits on every point. He has Henry Cavill as a stiff, impeccably dressed Napoleon Solo, but makes him more interesting by giving him a back story. Here, he’s a super-thief with so much talent the C.I.A. recruits him. This allows him to be the super-spy with the cleft chin, which means he’s a lady magnet. But it also gives him some humorous turns as he balances his spying duties with his thieving ways.
The tension in the film comes more from the competition between Solo and his partner Kuryakin, who comes onto the scene by chasing Solo and a woman he is springing from East Berlin — a woman whose father has some high-level atomic bomb design information.
There is as much tension supplied by their rivalry as there is by the plot, which includes, in classic Cold War fever, the point that there are spies around every corner. This is made clear when Solo’s CIA handler says at a cafe that he will leave Solo and Kuryakin to get to know each other. At that point, everyone in the restaurant gets up and leaves — after all, the world was nothing but spies back then.
I recommend this as a great date flick and a film that will make a terrific rental when it comes out on DVD. Cavill plays a stiff Solo impeccably and Hammer does well as the seething, no frills Russian type who is amused, but not taken in by leading lady Alicia Vikander, playing Gabriella Teller, the woman Solo extricates from East Berlin with Kuryakin in hot pursuit.
This is a comedy of manners that centers on Solo, Kuryakin and Teller sorting out their differences. The bomb plot works well enough, but not much more than that. It turns out, it doesn’t matter. The tension builds well enough and the comedy works on many levels. It’s not high explosives and special effects. But after a season of would-be blockbusters, it’s time for something different. This is the perfect anecdote to all of that over-budgeted summer mayhem.