The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Time for a bit of media slamming. I just got through watching Guy Ritchie’s new version of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I left the theater with about the same feeling as I did when I saw Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. As Maxwell Smart used to say, “missed it by that much.” Or maybe a bit more than “that much.” Because I didn’t get the feel of the original show at all.

The charm of the original TV show lay in its nod to James Bond. The new movie version, of course, is done in homage to the TV show, and is now two steps removed from its Bondian source. The wisecracking has been retained, but everything else has been reimagined. Now we have a backstory. In fact, the whole movie is one, long backstory. Napoleon Solo is an ex-soldier-turned-art-thief who is arrested and forced by an unknown U.S. agency (CIA, I guess) to spy for them. Ilya Kuryakin is a Russian spy with a negligent father and serious anger issues. The first time they meet, they try to kill one another.

Okay, not quite the charming duo of late 1960s TV. But now, with this new movie script, we now have MOTIVATION. Can’t really be expected to care about these characters without a backstory, right? The thing is, this story jives with my memory of the Solo character (charming womanizer, constant quipster), but really hits the wrong note with Kuryakin (as played by soft spoken, dry witted David McCallum in the original). But in the tried-and-true tradition of bringing old TV shows to the screen, at least we now have conflict—two characters at odds with one another who will eventually find mutual respect, maybe even become best buddies, and morph into the lovable spies we Baby Boomers knew and loved fifty years ago (God, has it been that long?).

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. I didn’t feel it.

I will admit that I got caught up in the basic plot—Solo and Kuryakin are recruited by their two countries to join forces to disarm a nuclear bomb created by a renegade German scientist—but I just didn’t feel the love for the characters. And why, I ask in all innocence, couldn’t they have used some of the original theme music? When you watch a James Bond movie, the Bond Theme always plays. Why, when you have a series with such a recognizable theme by Jerry Goldsmith, do you abandon it and start the movie with a Roberta Flack song, and end it with Nina Simone? Two fine singers, but what the hell do they have to do with the story or the series? Instead, we get about one bar of original series music playing for about 3 seconds on a truck radio as Solo flips the dial around. That’s it for Goldsmith. That’s it for theme song.

I had the same problem with Dark Shadows. The show had been reimagined to accommodate the essential film-school ingredients of Motivation and Conflict, but they squeezed all the juice out of the TV show in the process. And they also ditched the original soundtrack, which was part of the charm of the TV series. It’s a rare vintage TV series that translates well to the big screen. For every Mission: Impossible, Addams Family or Star Trek there are turkeys like Bewitched or The Lone Ranger or The Avengers (the British series, not the comic book characters).

Now, having said all this, let me say that the new Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn’t an out-and-out turkey. It’s got Hugh Grant as Waverly, which is just about perfect. It’s got 60s period detail all over the place. It takes you from East Berlin to the Italian Riviera. It’s got a nice double cross which I won’t reveal. And it’s got Guy Ritchie at the helm—director of the cult classics Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch—which means that at least you’ve got someone in charge who makes stylish movies and by all indications cares about what he’s doing.

I guess that’s why it’s rather disappointing. I had hoped for something better. Either wittier, cleverer, more true to the original characters, something that captured the feel of the original. And yes, something that utilized the original theme song, if only for a minute or two, right at the end, over the credits. That would have been nice.

—Greg Shepard

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