Back in the Swinging Sixties, there was only one television series that satisfied voracious spy-fi mania in the wake of the James Bond cinema explosion: The Man from UNCLE. Sure there was Get Smart and I Spy, too, but after UNCLE’s first transmission, on September 22, 1964, it was American agent Napoleon Solo (a named coined, incidentally, by 007 author Ian Fleming) and his Russian sidekick, Illya Kuryakin, who became household names, turning the actors who played them, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, into instant global superstars. The fact that both men are still active in the entertainment industry today (Hustle, NCIS etc) is testament to the popularity and keen nostalgic affection held for the series.
While eight spin-off movies were released during the show’s ratings peak, these were derived from and expanded upon key episodes. So director Guy Ritchie’s Cold War caper is the very first original screen incarnation, but it’s a vastly missed opportunity. For some reason, Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram have completely ignored why viewers loved the series so much – its charm, tongue-in-cheek humour, light-as-a-feather adventure and terrific scripting – to take a “fresh” approach to the material. This translates as concocting a credibility-busting origins narrative and indulging the same genre-blurring route as their Sherlock Holmes collaborations (ie heightened-reality costume drama meets high-gloss mystery action thriller), only with extra-added flippancy, self-conscious hipness and arch production design for misplaced sharpness and currency.
In the original TV series, we knew nothing about either secret agents’ backstories. Here, we learn Solo (Henry Cavill) was a black-market art dealer who sneaked his way into post-war high society before the CIA offered him the get-out-of-jail-free card of becoming a spy. And Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) became elite KGB motivated by the shame of his father being sent to a Siberian gulag.
A kiss-kiss-bang-bang car chase through East Berlin opens the picture, but it’s all downhill from there, as the pacing goes into freefall and becomes increasingly tiresome. The two operatives are informed that all their efforts were simply an exercise to see how they could work together to bring down a common USA/Soviet enemy, a secretive international criminal organisation hellbent on destabilising global power with a proliferation of nuclear weapons invented by Dr Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist. The agents’ joint mission is to find Teller via his estranged daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander), an East German mechanic sprung from behind the Berlin Wall, who poses as Kuryakin’s fiancée while they search Rome for clues to her father’s whereabouts so they can stop worldwide catastrophe.
Sadly, none of this is particularly involving or exciting. In between Solo and Kuryakin’s constant bickering and competitiveness over whose gadgets are bigger and better, the rote story trundles through every Eurospy cliché, from The Ipcress File to Austin Powers, tarting them up with obscure soul classics and Italian hit-parade songs, visual pop-art excess, formula stunt work and needless split-screen sequences. The latter device actually ruins any suspense vaguely whipped up during the Tracy Island-style finale. It’s that pumped-up, unevenness in tone that ultimately scuppers Ritchie’s men-on-a-wonky-spying-trapeze affair. Practically every choice made here was the wrong one: the forced lightheartedness is too top-heavy; the cultural and political touchstones overbearing; and the direction too brash by half, making even the few diverting moments seem ineptly irrelevant. And whose idea was it to have some fighting action happen off-screen so you don’t even witness it?
Is Superman actor Cavill the suave, urbane Solo for a new generation who know nothing about the vintage espionage show? Not really. He’s been cut more from the male-model cloth of Roger Moore’s The Saint than anything contemporary. The originally cast Tom Cruise would surely have given his Solo a more rounded persona than Cavill’s relentless one-note smoothness. And while Vikander looks the dolly-bird part and fills her kinky boots with a peppy Carnaby Street attitude, Jared Harris (as CIA boss Sanders, named after actor George) and Hugh Grant (Waverly, the only other familiar character from the series) barely get a look in.
The married villains of the piece must be the most uncharismatic incarnations of evil in reproduction-007 history. Ice blonde Elizabeth Debicki carbon copies Monica Vitti from Modesty Blaise, while US soap star Luca Calvani, as her racing car-mad husband, hardly registers on the memorable megalomaniac scale. Both are dressed up with nowhere to go, just like the film itself. Only Hammer feels about right in his unruffled role. As the reserved, intense and intellectual Kuryakin, you do increasingly warm to him and his efforts to quell his more violent side.
Symptomatic of the whole jazzy, frantic and thrown-together mess is an early Rome-set scene in a boutique where Solo and Kuryakin fight over what fashions Gaby should wear to complement her Russian-housewife disguise. Kuryakin admonishes Solo with the put-down: “Dior should never be mixed with Paco Rabbane.” And clearly nor should any spy spoof aiming to be too cool for school marry Bondage paraphernalia with Ritchie’s professed main inspiration, La Dolce Vita. That really is enough to make you cry “UNCLE”.
The Man from UNCLE is released on Friday 14 August