The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Remember back ten years ago when Michael Mann rebooted his TV smash Miami Vice for the big screen? That movie didn’t even take place in Miami!

And before that, in 1998, Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman kissed each other in The Avengers? Steed would’ve been too much of a gentleman to compromise “Mrs.” Peel.

Director Guy Ritchie’s take on the ‘60s spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is even dumber!

The original program featured an American secret agent, Napoleon Solo, paired with a bohemian Russian spy named Illya Kuryakin under the auspices of an organization at odds with an international crime syndicate whose operatives stole bombs, formulas and intel from the west.

Well, forget all of that! This movie makes no mention of T.H.R.U.S.H.; hell, U.N.C.L.E. itself isn’t even alluded to until the closing comment! There is no “open channel D,” no ink pen communications device and instead of going after rogue nations or power-hungry despots, this “origin” story of sorts is hurled back to 1963 with then President Kennedy giving Cold War speeches. The Cold War? If memory serves me correctly, that was between the United States and the Soviet Union, but in the Ritchie film, the CIA is after fascists who hold Hitler and Mussolini in high regard, SEVENTEEN years after World War II ended! Which is possible, since Nazi hunters were actively searching the globe for Hitler’s henchmen, but it was most definitely the Soviets who were kidnapping former German rocket scientists, whisking them to Moscow to work on the sub-standard Soviet weapons left over from the War, so the Soviets could better challenge the U.S. in the arms race. Their espionage was aimed at stealing U.S. military secrets and blueprints, while our operatives set about to thwart those efforts. Yet, at the height of the Cold War, in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it’s Napoleon Solo who’s designated as a larcenist hoping to have a prison sentence expunged by the CIA in return for accepting this mission to locate a former Nazi scientist.

According to the movie, a former Hitler rocket scientist disappears and it’s feared a fascist group loyal to Mussolini has taken him to activate a nuclear warhead! Since such an incident might affect the Soviets, they send in their youngest KGB field operative. The key is to find the scientist’s daughter so that she might lead them to her uncle who is connected to this fascist front.

The rumor has always been that Ian Fleming created U.N.C.L.E. as an “American James Bond,” but in fact Bond himself was modeled on Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and the evidence is that Spillane, as a courtesy, initially represented Fleming to U.S. publishers. Fleming may indeed have seeded the idea of a TV series about spies with the character Napoleon Solo but he served as consultant, not creator, on U.N.C.L.E.

On the TV show, Robert Vaughn as Solo was suave, erudite and quite the womanizer – all Bond qualities. But Bond had a darker side, he was caddish, malicious and downright mean, which is where the idea for Kuryakin came in.

As portrayed by David McCallum, Illya was shabby with longish hair, wearing a subversive black turtleneck in place of business attire. Mr. Waverly, their boss and head of the organization, was cast with actor Leo G. Carroll, who had played much the same part in Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest.

Missing, however, from Ritchie’s film is that sense of cultural competitiveness between the two agents that usually meant one or the other would be left dangling in harm’s way while his partner absconded with the babe.

Armie Hammer goes for more of an Eton look as opposed to McCallum’s Carnaby Street swagger, but it was 1963 and Hammer’s Kuryakin is too tight-assed to engage in the ribald climate of the Free World!

On the other hand, Henry Cavill sails through Robert Vaughn’s cocksure composure. But by providing the friction and frivolity, Alicia Vikander (the girl from Ex-Machina) as Gaby the chop shop debutante, with her use of the Mary Quant miniskirt and lush eyelashes to capture a Senta Berger allure against the gnarly Brazilian backbeat and French ye-ye pop songs, sets every scene.

Guy Ritchie’s lumpy, distracting transitions and his use of split-screen pretentiousness produce an overall effect that is ornamental but empty, and absolutely nowhere near as memorable as Jerry Goldsmith’s bongo highlights that accompanied those smeared segues on the TV show.

If this movie had been one of the TV episodes, surely it would’ve been titled “The Tepid Affair, Neither Shaken Nor Stirred.”