Saturday, 15 August 2015

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. review

The 1960s spy series rides again in a classy big screen reinvention.

Henry Cavill and Arni Hammer re-open Channel D.

Between 1964 and 1968, secret agents Napoleon Solo, American (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin, Russian (David McCallum), delighted TV and cinema audiences worldwide in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., with light-hearted spy capers for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement in the James Bond style. Ian Fleming himself had named Vaughn’s character and everyone from Terry-Thomas to Sonny and Cher joined in the fun.

Like the series, the film is informed by the shadow of World War II, as the agents go after a Nazi organisation who possess a nuclear bomb. The big difference is that the movie is a origin story, centring on how two rival intelligence agents, the CIA’s Solo (Henry Cavill) and the KGB’s Kuryakin (Arni Hammer), in miss-matched buddy movie style, eventually earn each other’s respect and form the basis of U.N.C.L.E. The new film makes a lot of this d├ętente; progressively, the TV series took it for granted.

This is how to do vintage cinema. An eclectic easy listening soundtrack, incidental music that references Isaac Hayes and Lalo Schifrin (who did an arrangement of the theme for the TV show) and the same split-screen style used in some 1960s movies. The U.N.C.L.E. film isn’t self-consciously, shoutily retro in a Life on Mars way: like this year’s superior MI5 BBC drama The Game, it looks like it was made in the period in which it’s set. The only concession to a modern audience is the history lesson about the Cold War and the nuclear arms race in the opening titles and, significantly, The Game used that technique too.

Wisely, neither Cavill or Hammer attempt to impersonate Vaughn or McCallum – Kuryakin, in particular, is a much darker character who, in Hammer’s skilful hands, slowly lightens – but Cavill has enough of Vaughn’s easy, charming manner to make enthusiasts of the original smile warmly, and as U.N.C.L.E. supremo-in-waiting Waverly, I can’t think of anyone better to play him than Hugh Grant. There are strong female roles too, with Alicia Vikader impressive as a Gaby, a fiery East German exile, and, especially striking, Elizabeth Debicki as the blank-eyed villainess Victoria, arch as an enemy and arch in performance, who could have slotted unchanged into the series.

Director Guy Ritchie’s come a long way since Lock, Stock and a Load of Cockney Stereotypes. He looks for unusual camera angles and puts the camera in unexpected places in nearly every scene – attached to vault door, to a buggy that Solo is driving. Ritchie’s also carefully thought through the action scenes to give them a quirky visual emphasis. In one memorable sequence, Solo helps himself to a picnic in the cab of a truck, while in the background Kuryakin is chased around a harbour by a gunboat. The scene ends with Napoleon smashing the truck into the enemy boat and waiting for it to sink so he can rescue the KGB man from drowning. The climax is equally inventive: Solo goads Victoria into talking on the radio so a missile can home in on her position. In a couple of places, Ritchie rewinds the action to show events from a different perspective and explain how something’s happened – a visual sleight-of-hand he’s used before – but happily the technique’s not overdone here.

While The Avengers movie looked right but had none of the wit or intelligence of the original, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is both a chic visual and audio treat, has likeable characters and a taut plot that delivers several unexpected twists. It’s stylish in a very 1960s way, with as much thought given to how it looks and sounds as to the action and characterisation.

Was that really David McCallum doing a cameo in one scene? I hope so.