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Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Heather Wallace

In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organisation, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons.

Sure the Cold War was a tense time, tensions simmering between world powers meant there was always the danger of waking up to a nuclear wasteland, but you can’t deny the early decades of the period produced some cracking TV.

Get Smart, The Avengers (the John Steed/Emma Peel one, not the Thor one) and The Man From U.N.C.L.E were fun, funny spy adventures that had audiences tuning in each week.

I remember Get Smart and The Avengers from endless repeats growing up, but I never saw The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Watching Guy Ritchie’s newly released film version on the weekend, I think it’s safe to say he never saw it either.

Ritchie, director of the Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes, is known for fast-paced, slight-of-hand visuals that keep you in the moment without ever stopping to ponder events too deeply. Here he’s thrown together a Cold War odd couple – suave American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, Man of Steel’s Superman) and muscular KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, superb as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), to stop the most MacGuffinny of plot MacGuffins.

It has something to do with stopping a pair of billionaire Italian Fascists (Elizabeth Debicki and Luca Calvani dripping diamonds and sports cars against Roman landmarks) who are coercing a German scientist into building a nuclear bomb. Supposedly these louche villains are so dangerous they warrant the US and the USSR becoming uneasy bedfellows. Maybe if the scenery chewing Fascists spent less time at high society parties (I kept expecting Silvio Berlusconi to pop up) and more time plotting, they wouldn’t be so one dimensional.

But let’s face it; the plot isn’t the reason to see this one. It’s all about watching Solo and Illya go from enemies to allies to a close-knit team.

It doesn’t hurt that they are both so chiselled and beautiful to look at. Never is this more obvious than a scene where Solo emerges from a water chase and sits in a truck with his hair dripping perfect tendrils. There’s a high-speed boat chase and a massive explosion just behind him, but the audience just sits and watches this very, very handsome man tuck a napkin under his chin, pour himself a glass of wine and eat a sandwich. Seriously, the focus is all on him eating a sandwich.

Just in case you think I didn’t notice anyone else on screen, there is Alicia Vikander as Gaby the car-mechanic daughter of the missing scientist, who Solo breaks out of East Berlin in the film’s opening sequence, hotly pursued across Check Point Charlie by Illya. After ditching her drab Communist overalls she gets to parade around in an array of Mary Quant inspired 1960s costumes. Since it’s her father they’re all after, she joins the spies, pretending to be Illya’s fiancé, which neither are particularly happy about at first, adding some romantic frisson to the proceedings.

Hugh Grant pops up as well, and if you’ve seen the trailer you’ll already have a good idea of his role.

Sadly The Man From U.N.C.L.E just isn’t funny enough or suspenseful enough to stand out. I want a spy film to inspire me to sit in a darkened bar, drinking vodka and speaking with a pretend Russian accent (and I bet I’m not the only one who pretends to be a spy sometimes!). But hey, the costumes and jewellery are gorgeous, the guys are even more gorgeous, and let’s not forget what this film is really about…Henry Cavill’s audition reel as the next James Bond.

It’s hard not to see the spectre of Bond hovering over this production, the TV series was created to capitalise on the success of the Bond films and Ian Fleming created the Napoleon Solo character.

Apparently the choice for a rebooted Bond came down to Daniel Craig and Henry Cavill, the former winning out because producers wanted someone a little older and more rugged. Based on his performance as Napoleon Solo, if Henry Cavill is the next Bond, the transition will be like going from Sean Connery’s Bond to Roger Moore’s.

I like Henry Cavill, I really do, he is so charming and self-deprecating in interviews (just watch him talking about his nephew to Graham Norton, it’s adorable!) but he just hasn’t found the role that captures that charm yet. Neither this nor Superman is doing him justice.

But just so you don’t think I’m being needlessly harsh on The Man from U.N.CL.E, I will say that of those three classic spy shows turned into films, it’s far and way the best. But anyone who saw the adaptions of The Avengers with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman or Get Smart with Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway will know that’s not saying a lot. The best comedy spy film is still Val Kilmer’s Top Secret from way back in 1984.

The other thing that Guy Ritchie overlooked from the original show is U.N.C.L.E’s nemesis, an organisation called T.H.R.U.S.H…actually you can kind of understand why he left it out. But if there’s a sequel to this film, I really, really hope T.H.R.U.S.H are the bad guys and are headed by a female super villain called Candida…


The Man from U.N.CL.E is playing in cinemas around Canberra.

The review saw the film as the guest of Palace Cinema


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author