‘I’ ON CULTURE
In a world where Hollywood has pretty much given up on true creativity, it falls back on old reliables: shows and movies that have come before. Guy Ritchie does that with his remake of the old TV series Man From U.N.C.L.E. Nevertheless, it turns out that he has created a pretty good film with plenty of action and even a bit of fun.
The old series, created during the Kennedy administration, just as James Bond was beginning to dominate action films, began with the clever notion of having not only an American secret agent, but a Russian one, with the duo working together to stop evil. It was fun; it was stylish. Happily, Ritchie has kept the time frame, and, to a large degree, the sensibility of the early 1960s, in a wild adventure film.
American super-secret agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is first seen in East Berlin (remember when Germany was divided?) trying to convince German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) to come to the West to locate her father, a nuclear scientist reported missing. They begin the trek, but are chased by Russian super-agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). There is a fun car chase, better done than most I’ve seen recently, as Solo and Teller escape.
The next day we discover that Solo was a thief and is being forced to work for the U.S. government with a handler (Jared Harris) who is nastier than most of the bad guys. He takes Solo to a meeting with their Russian counterparts, where they assign Solo and Kuryakin to work together to recover both the missing scientist and key data that describes how he has been able to easily build a nuclear bomb.
As the leaders leave, the entire restaurant clears out (all the customers were their people) in one of the more amusing moments. The two agents fight and seem to hate each other. Then Teller enters the picture, assigned to pretend to be Kuryakin’s fiancée. Interestingly, both agents seem far more expert in creating her wardrobe than any heterosexual male would likely to have been 50 years ago.
The two agents are forced to work together despite disagreements, both having been informed that they are to get the key data and kill the other at the end of the mission. They wind up in Italy and meet Teller’s uncle (Sylvester Groth), who it turns out had been one of the Nazis’ top torturers, as well as the beautiful leader (Elizabeth Debicki) of the fascist group that wants to use the weapons to take over the world. As is normal in this type of film, there is trickery and betrayal before Solo and Kuryakin manage to destroy the bad guys.
There is even a nice scene at the end where we see the creation of the new agency U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement), under the direction of British agent Waverly (Hugh Grant), who seems to have been maneuvering everyone through the whole thing.
The only real problem in the film is that Cavill and Hammer have almost no charisma. They are both remarkably handsome and physically fit. But those who remember Robert Vaughn as the original Solo and, particularly, David McCollum as Kuryakin, will find that although their banter is reasonably well-written, there is no chemistry.
Changing Kuryakin into a sometimes psychotic character created some good scenes, but also put him at an emotional distance from the audience. Vikander stole every scene she was in from the two of them. The rest of the cast was uniformly good.
Grant was good, no longer playing the casual boy-man role, even if only on screen for a short time. Clearly, he is being established as the leader of the group in sequels. Debicki was both beautiful and elegant as Victoria, mostly interested in world domination although willing to take time off to get romantic with Solo. Groth was appropriately creepy as the horrid uncle.
This is a good summer movie. There is a lot of action with no real need for any thinking to get in the way of a good time. Cavill and Hammer were able to handle the action well. Had more personality been allowed to shine through, this would have been a far better film.
Still, in the dog days of August, we all could do far worse. If the rains are coming down, and you want a good time, this remake is a good choice.