Review for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
There was a period back in the nineties when there was a great rush to adapt genre television from the 1960s to the big screen. They are always making Star Trek movies (there were four in the nineties), but we also saw adaptations of shows like The Flintstones, The Addams Family, The Fugitive, The Wild Wild West, The Saint, The Avengers, Lost in Space, and Mission Impossible. It was the success of the latter that had me certain that my favourite spy show from the sixties would soon be getting a remake. After all, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had style, panache, it had great characters, a brilliant Cold War setting, and it had the best TV theme tune ever. It was only a matter of time.
The nineties came and went, and the fad for remakes moved past the sixties to the seventies, eighties and now the nineties themselves (we’re getting the Baywatch movie this year), and it was only in 2015 that we finally got The Man From U.N.C.L.E. feature film. Maybe it took them that long to actually get it right, although this is ostensibly an origin feature, before the United Network Command for Law Enforcement came into being, and it very reasonably asks, just why a US agent and Soviet agent would team up at the height of the Cold War?
East Berlin, 1963. CIA agent Napoleon Solo has a mission to extract a German auto mechanic named Gaby Teller and bring her over to the West. Of course no one likes a defector, and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin is tasked with stopping them, while the KGB has reasons of its own to want Gaby Teller. For her estranged father Udo Teller is a renowned nuclear scientist, and he’s just gone missing.
When it becomes clear that he may have perfected a means of economically enriching uranium to weapons grade, and on a mass scale, this becomes a problem that transcends borders and ideologies. Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are ordered to work together with Gaby to find Udo Teller, and retrieve his research. The problem is that Dr Teller is now working for the Vinciguerra criminal family, a family with ties to the Nazis.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. gets a 2.40:1 widescreen transfer on this Blu-ray, with the choice between Dolby Atmos English (with a core track of Dolby TrueHD 7.1), and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Spanish, Italian, and English audio descriptive. You have subtitles in these languages alongside Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Greek. A pixel perfect transfer with a resounding and effective surround audio track is not going to invite much criticism, certainly not from me. It comes down to creative decisions, and while I feel the colour grading applied to the film is a little too strong, as it is in most action films these days, the film beautifully captures the feel of the period, in costumes, props and set design. You also see that sixties style echoed in the credit sequences, and some of the split-screen cinematography. The same can be said for the music soundtrack, which epitomises cool. The one fly in the ointment is the absence of the original theme tune, or so I thought until I saw it listed in the end credits. You can actually hear it at one point in the film, but you’ll have to Google to find out where; I did. The surround expresses the film’s action impeccably, and the sharp and witty dialogue is clear throughout.
You get one disc in a Blu-ray Amaray. There is an Ultraviolet Code for a digital copy, which expires at the end of 2018. The disc boots to an animated menu.
There are a handful of short featurettes on the disc, hardly overwhelming in terms of quantity and quality, and it feels very much like an EPK.
Spy Vision: Recreating 60’s Cool lasts 8:34 and has interviews with the cast and crew on the look of the film.
A Higher Class of Hero lasts 7:13 and takes a look at the film’s action.
Métisse Motorcycles: Proper-And Very British lasts 4:49 and Armie Hammer takes us on a tour of the company that supplied the film’s bikes.
The Guys from U.N.C.L.E. lasts 4:57 and looks at how this film is an origin story, the characters and their actors.
A Man of Extraordinary Talents lasts 3:16 and is an ode to the director.
You get four more featurettes in U.N.C.L.E.: On-Set Spy which together run to a total of 5:16, some more frivolous behind the scenes content and b-roll footage.
If you are looking for something in the vein of the vintage Man From U.N.C.L.E. that we all know and love, then best track down those DVDs, or pop in an old VHS. This modern day version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. offers a complete reimagining of the characters, to the point where it reinvents the franchise. As you might also expect, there’s more of a focus on big screen action and stunts, and it loses something of the elegance of the original show. Certainly the villains in this film are nowhere near as smooth or as charismatic as the ones in the television series.
But if you can forget about the television show, and watch this movie on its own merits, then you’re in for a treat. For The Man From U.N.C.L.E. feature film is really quite good, in fact it’s one of the better films that I have seen in recent years, despite the orange and teal. If you’ve read some of my reviews in recent years, of films like The X-Men First Class, then you’ll know that I’m a sucker for retro when it’s done right, and I have a soft spot for the sixties in particular, the era when fashion and style really did become a thing. This movie gets the essence of the era just spot on, and it looks fantastic.
The way the characters have been re-imagined really works in the film’s favour, as it’s obviously an odd-couple movie, and those work best when the mutual antagonism is most apparent as the buddy dynamic is being formed. Napoleon Solo is still suave, sophisticated, immaculate, but now he’s given the background of a thief and a conman, who chose to work for the CIA to avoid a prison sentence. He has the appearance of someone who doesn’t take the work seriously, who is more of a chancer, and who relies on his natural talents than anything as mundane as training. He’s as much Albert Stroller as he is Napoleon Solo. On the other hand, Illya Kuryakin is a complete departure from the original character. He’s just as meticulous and methodical as before, reliant on his training, but he has something of a dark past, one that has left him with a short temper and violent tendencies. When we first meet him, he’s practically a thug, but as we get to know him, and more importantly as he gets to know Gaby and Solo, he begins to soften. Gaby Teller is the original character, making this a team of three rather than two, and she’s more than just a romantic interest, a capable and proactive character who is an important safety valve for the other two at first, as well as just as capable a member of the team.
As well as getting the setting and the look of the film so right, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also gets its story right too. Admittedly it went for the low-hanging fruit, but when you are re-establishing a much loved franchise, taking such chances with the characters, you don’t need to take chances with the story as well. You have the Cold War setting, East versus West, the threat simply has to be nuclear, and if you aren’t going to use THRUSH (which let’s face it is just as unlikely to resonate with modern audiences as SMERSH), then you have got to go with Nazis, especially Nazis that have escaped the end of World War II and are looking to pick things up again 15 years later.
The most important thing is that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. gets the tone just right. It keeps things serious and straight when it comes to the threat, the mission, but it keeps it light and fun when it comes to the characters, their interactions, and the script. It’s fun and engaging to watch, very much in the vein of a sixties spy movie, albeit one that is made with 2015 sensibilities and production values. If they made a period James Bond movie today, this is how you’d want it to be, and I certainly enjoyed The Man From U.N.C.L.E. more than any of the Daniel Craig Bonds. The one disappointment with this film is that for a film called The Man From U.N.C.L.E., U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t exactly exist yet. This is an origin story, and as such, it feels like the build up for a pay-off that will only come once the sequels start being made. Forget Man of Steel, I definitely want to see Henry Cavill alongside Armie Hammer in more Man From U.N.C.L.E. movies.