The In-Name-Only Remake Affair
The world is full of mysteries – most bafflingly, right now, why anyone would think it was a good idea to make a new Transporter movie without Jason Statham, but I digress – and the secret of consistently good and lucrative film-making is one of them. Mind you, that's only part of the story – once your film is made, it's still got to be reviewed, and this can be just as random a process as the actual production.
Or so it seems to me, at least: I think we can safely ascribe much of Fantastic Four's underwhelming opening weekend to the vicious reviews it received. Not that this wasn't deserved, of course, for we're talking about a film which is tonally all over the place, fundamentally unfaithful to the source material, and frequently quite dull to watch. 8% on Rotten Tomatoes could be considered a harsh rating, but not by much. Guy Ritchie's new take on The Man from U.N.C.L.E., on the other hand, currently basks in a comparatively luxuriant 67%, even though... well, we'll get to that, I expect.
Ritchie's movie opens in early-60s Berlin, where playboy thief and CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is intent on extracting a young woman named Gabby (Alicia Vikander) to assist him in his current assignment. However, she is already being watched by towering KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). Nevertheless, Solo succeeds, and is naturally surprised when his superiors inform him that Kuryakin is to be his new partner (the Russian is not impressed either). Gabby's father is a nuclear physicist whose discovery of a quicker way of enriching uranium could facilitate the production of nuclear warheads, and this has brought him to the attention of a Rome-based criminal syndicate. The US and the USSR have agreed to co-operate in order to find the man and bring down the criminals.
So, younger readers may be wondering, this film is about a CIA agent and a KGB agent joining forces to take on an un-named set of bad guys. So why on earth is it called The Man from U.N.C.L.E.? That's a good question. I suspect it is because the makers of this film believe that the title The Man from U.N.C.L.E. still has some traction amongst audiences of a certain vintage and they have duly purchased the rights to it and slapped it on a buddy-buddy spy film in the hopes of luring in people with fond memories of the original.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E., should you be a young person who is curious and yet too sedentary to check it out on Wikipedia, was a popular TV series of the 1960s. It was very much a post-Bond piece of entertainment (indeed, Ian Fleming was involved in its genesis), very heavy on gadgets and slick spy-fi storylines. It was very much at home in a pop-cultural landscape that included similar shows like The Avengers, The Prisoner, Mission: Impossible, and so on. All of these series were ultimately totally escapist, serving to distract audiences from international tensions rather than examine them in any realistic or rigorous way.
So why would you make an adaptation of the show which largely revolves around the political and personal tensions between the two lead characters? Why would you ditch the concept of U.N.C.L.E. as actual organisation and just make a film about a joint CIA-KGB operation? Why would you reimagine the two protagonists so thoroughly? (Or, if you prefer, stick the names of popular characters on two wholly new creations?) The film's Solo is an amoral crook working off his prison sentence by working for the CIA; the film's Kuryakin is by turns Soviet iceman and Viking berserker.
There is no use of Jerry Goldsmith's famous theme from the show. You will look in vain for any sign of a radio concealed in a pen, for those little triangular badges they used to wear, or for the organisation of bad guys from the TV show which has a rather embarassing name by modern standards. As you may or may not recall, I was no great fan of Kingsman, but I will still cheerfully admit that even in its mongrelised way, it was closer to the spirit and style of the original Man from U.N.C.L.E. than this so-called film adaptation is.
Okay, so forget about the fact that this is supposed to be based on a classic TV show (Ritchie and company certainly seem to) – how does it stand up as a spy movie in its own right? Well, if your idea of a really good spy film is something made by Fellini or starring Audrey Hepburn, you'll probably be quite happy, because once the action shifts to Rome those seem to have been the primary influences on the film. People are forever leaping into speedboats to zip about the Bay of Naples, or decking themselves out in retro 60s gear. It's all very evocative and nice to look at, but not especially gripping.
The direction is, to be honest, a bit self-indulgent: Ritchie can't seem to resist going for very ostentatious set-pieces that may show his talent for composition and editing but don't necessarily hold together that well as a story (or provide the spy movie staples). At one point a speedboat chase beckons, but Ritchie opts to go for some very laid-back business with a packed lunch and the soundtrack instead. Possibly he was just trying to be ironic, but I'm not sure he'd earned that right at that point.
In addition to being more concerned with atmosphere and aesthetics than actual plot, there's something very odd going on with the tone here, too. The best thing about the film is indisputable Henry Cavill's performance, which strikes a very entertaining note of drolly ironic detachment, but he's stuck in a film which mostly takes itself pretty seriously. And when it doesn't, it fumbles as often as it succeeds: one lengthy 'gag' revolves around a minor character slowly being electrocuted and burning to death. Oh, my sides. (I couldn't help recalling that, at one point in its very long gestation, this film had Quentin Tarantino attached as a possible director.)
Cavill and Hammer do their level best with the material – both of them are in the fortunate position of being actors that Hollywood seems determined to turn into big stars, no matter how many stumbles there are en route – while Hugh Grant is also okay as Mr Waverley (needless to say he has very little in common with Leo G Carroll's character from the show). But on the whole I thought this was an underwhelming and frequently quite dull film. To be honest, I kind of felt cheated by the use of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. name on a movie which quite clearly has no connection to the show, nor any real desire to have one. This is moderately stylish but utterly vacuous; not even fun in an ironic way.