“It Doesn’t Have to Match”–The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Idea attack. Went to see the new Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie again last night, and was struck with some cool ideas about writing about spies, which I like.

I am not baffled by critical response to the new film, but I have to say that I am surprised by my own. I had the potential to be one of the film’s harshest critics, but rather, I truly enjoyed the film. Let’s talk about why.

Illya, in the film, usurps fashion choices Napoleon makes for a woman recently brought out from behind the Berlin Wall. “You dress her like you think a woman from the Iron Curtain would look. Her fiance would not want her to take the Iron Curtain with her.” Napoleon complains about an accessory choice Illya makes–a belt and a dress that do not coordinate. Illya says, “It doesn’t have to match,” between gritted teeth.

I see some obvious parallels. This is not the Man from U.N.C.L.E. of the 1960s. Not that Guy Ritchie isn’t trying. Some critics have complained about the music during the action sequences, which is a trade mark of the original show. Some are not certain about the “lack of story,” and I gotta say it has about the average amount of story of an U.N.C.L.E. two-parter from the old days, and a hella more story than movies like Transformers or Jurassic Park. Other people complain the film has more style and less substance. Perhaps. And yet others, those who have no connection to the original, or are under a certain age, are simply staring and asking, “WTF, Guy Ritchie. Did we even need this film at all?”

It’s a film that isn’t going to garner a wide audience, that much is a certainty based on the box office. It seems targeted at older viewers while trying to employ some action film techniques that might attract younger viewers, and the heroes use their heads as well as their weapons. There are zero spectacular effects, really. I am disappointed that we probably won’t get more films based on this, although Ritchie has my full support to make more movies. I’m just not certain that more than a certain niche of US film goers want to see this kind of thing. Not heavy enough to be a drama, not light enough to be a comedy, not spectacle enough to be a summer film, it is all of these things in smaller doses. I do like my moderation.

Another wonderful thing is Henry Cavill’s performance as Napoleon Solo. He has been criticized as bland. The man isn’t Robert Vaughn. But by damn, he’s trying to be. For those of us who have watched the old show, Cavill clearly has done his homework. I would faint dead away if it turned out he hadn’t watched the show, because his mannerism, his flat humor, his understated expression, they are Napoleon Solo. The guy is built all wrong, but that said, he’s doing the best that he can.

And the loving recreation of the 60s is great. Crappy small European cars, correct vintage clothes and make-up, and wonderful, wonderful camera shots make this thing feel right.


Now, what’s changed? Well, two key components have changed. First of all, these characters are troubled. Napoleon and Illya were not thieves nor pscychotic KGB agents with issues to overcome. This is Ritchie’s invention, trying perhaps to reinvent the spy for the modern audience in a film that is hommage to an old show. We no longer like our characters squeaky clean, and quite frankly, I think I like the added dimension. There is a tension between the two agents as they work on opposite sides, which I find interesting and again deep, and there is actually transition as the movie proceeds. This is unlike the action of the 1960s, where good guys just kind of start good, no real motivations required.

And there is the changed Illya Kuryakin. If any of you know the original show, Illya, played by David McCallum, was the breakout star. Skinny, intellectual, hair like a Beatle, young women all over the US swooned and swooned and swooned. Ritchie has taken some serious liberties with the character. Oh sure, he’s smart and competent and still has a certain kind of vulnerability, but he’s also a gigantic weight lifting dangerous man of action with emotional issues tied to what happened to his parents? Do I like it? Yes. I loved David McCallum, but I find this transition agreeable. There’s enough there of the original character that I can work with. The original Kuryakin probably wouldn’t have added enough excitement or tension to the film, nor have existed in the environment where Russians can hold his past over his head.

Now, we really don’t know much, if anything, about how Vaughn’s and McCallum’s agents got together. There was just this international organization fighting these international criminals, and they just sort of ignored the Cold War, except when it affected the whole world. Outside of the show, the CIA and the KGB continued to work, and U.N.C.L.E. was trying to show the world a way to be better.

In this film, modern audiences might have found that approach naive or at least not sophisticated enough.

I’m not sure what happens next for Ritchie and his films. I think that the almighty dollar will shut him down. I’ve never liked a Ritchie film before. I couldn’t even try his super anachronistic Sherlock Holmes and the other cannon that I know is too reminscent of Tarantino whom I despise. I am also previously not a Cavill or Hammer (Kuryakin’s new actor) enthusiast. Yet, these elements and personas have all been brought together quite successfully in this film, as far as I am concerned.

Should you go see it? Well, I know people who should. I’m looking at you, Chris East. But I don’t know. Do you like the 60s? Do you like spies? Will you be offended by deviation from the original? Do you even care about a film that is many things but not enough one thing? I don’t know.

I can say that I really, really liked it, and I think critics are spending the harsh unnecessarily. But I also know that most critics are more neutral, and a few tend toward positive reviews, which is why we’re looking at a C kind of rating for the thing.

Go and see it for yourself. After all, if you do, I might get a sequel. You’d be doing me a favor.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

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