The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had me nervous for few reasons. First, it could be a departure from the television series that was completely character based. It was a show in which you liked Robert Vaughn as the American James Bond imitation Napoleon Solo, even though he was stiff and had a nose-in-the-air accent, or you didn’t. The same went for his Russian sidekick Illya Kuryakin, except in contrast Kuryakin was played by an immensely likeable David McCallum. Even though he was playing a Russian with a wilting Celtic brogue, he had a winning personality that was quirky and sexy.
Worse, however, the movie could stay true to the show, which was somewhat boring, unless you happened to like the characters, who created a definitive team.
Of course, if the movie tried to replicate the Vaughn and McCallum pairing, it could get weird fast. The movie might turn out to be Henry Cavill imitating Vaughn who was imitating Sean Connery as Bond. And it could be Armie Hammer imitating McCallum, who was a tough act to follow.
Turns out, the movie is all of the above and it works. Cavill plays a very stiff, impeccably dressed Napoleon Solo, who has the added dimension of being a convicted super-thief whose skills were so terrific, the CIA springs him from jail to do their dirty work. And Hammer plays a likeable Kuryakin, who is also stiff. He plays the part as a seething, go-to-work Russian spy, who also has some skeletons in his closet.
Now we just need a leading lady. The television show started with Stephanie Powers as the Girl From U.N.C.L.E., named (by author Ian Flemming, no less) April Dancer, but she was muscled out by McCallum, who proved to be more popular.
The movie relies on the talents of Alicia Vikander as Gabriella Teller, who Solo extricates from East Berlin with Kuryakin on hot pursuit.
How the movie works is that Solo and Kuryakin start out with competitive contempt for each other and do their best to out-smart, out-muscle and out-spy each other throughout the film. It makes for some comic relief and brooding tension at the same time. It’s a deft touch by screenwriters Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram.
OK, let’s get down to brass tacks. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a classic wait-until-it’s-a-rental movie, but it is a terrific date flick, too. It’s fun, absorbing, well played with enough plot twists to keep you guessing and a defiant absence of cliches. In short, it’s a triumph that avoids every pratfall I had feared going into it.
The way it works – without giving away the plot – is that the story is all retro. This is a look at 1962 as if it were an iconic time in the world of international espionage. Seems funny to look back that far – my childhood years – and say this film works because it’s a retro-fit to those treasonous times. But, it does. Kudos, especially to Ritchie, who wrote, produced and directed the film. See it in theaters if you can or rent it when it comes around again.