Another month, another re-do of a. classic property. Set within the same period as the original TV series, we look at whether THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. will help us carry on spying...
In 2002, The Bourne Identity changed once and for all the way spy films were perceived. For several years (the Spy Kids series aside), the genre was slowly becoming more and more contemplative and soben more and more real if you will. Matt Damon's unsmiling memory-challenged super-agent confirmed Hollywood's growing belief that spying was, in fact, a serious business after all. Despite outperforming The Bourne Identity at the box office, Die Another Day proved to be the last of Pierce Brosnan's James Bond films as producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson decided to reinvent the franchise; opting for an emotional realism that would bring the character right up to date, but would signal the end of many of the more fantastical elements that had become increasingly prevalent in recent films.
So is spying really just not fun anymore?
There have always been parodies of spy films from Top Secret! to True Lies, Austin Powers to Johnny English, all of varying quality (we'll ignore Knight and Day as everyone else seemed to) but all having one thing in common: humour. Many of these films are outright comedies, but what about a film that combines the best of both espionage worlds; a throwback to the Bond films of the 70's and 80's with a pinch of Harry Palmer thrown in? Films that were as visceral as their more serious counterparts but with the wit and confidence to get away with a preposterous pun or punchline. 2015 could be the year that those films return. Already we have had Kingsman: The Secret Service, where gentleman spies repeatedly save the world through the use of good manners and deadly umbrellas. Marshalled by maverick producer and director Matthew Vaughn, Kingsman contains the unrestrained brutality of one of his previous films, Kick-Ass, while delivering killer lines with such abundant style that would cause Roger Moore to raise both eyebrows. Now there is another film set to invade the ground vacated by Bond, promising to join Vaughn's superb Kingsman as one of the year's biggest hits.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is released this August, and there are many reasons to be optimistic about Guy Ritchie's Cold War comedy thriller. But first, a little background.
In the early 1960's, British producer Norman Felton approached James Bond creator Ian Fleming to collaborate on a television series after having an initial idea based around U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Fleming would later pull out due to other commitments but is credited with proposing the character Napoleon Solo, an American agent attached to this new international police force. After a favourable public response to a cameo appearance, Georgian (in the U.S.S.R.) agent lllya Kuryakin was added, and the series became a two-hander with the pair each week solving mysteries and fixing bad guys upon receiving their orders from the head of the organisation, Number One of Section One. With Robert Vaughn as Solo and David McCallum as Kuryakin, the show was hugely successful, with over 105 episodes in its 5-year run, and winning a Golden Globe in 1965.
U.N.C.L.E.'s main adversary at the time was T.H.R.U.S.H.; intent on taking over the world, the series never divulged the meaning of T.H.R.U.S.H. and when you discover a novelisation based upon the show records it as Terrestrial Hegemony for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity, it's easy to understand why. Anyway, that's the background — now forget all of it, because apart from the name of the characters and the title, Guy Ritchie's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. will bear little resemblance to the source television show.
Technically, this new film will not be a remake. a reboot or a reimagining (anyone else bored with re-something or other?) of the original premise. The same 60's Cold War setting will remain and the characters, although possibly a little more polished and pretty now, appear to be generally unchanged. Instead of T.H.R.U.S.H. (you can understand why they dropped this… no one likes T.H.R.U.S.H.), the bad guys are former Nazis who fled Germany at the end of the war and are now in the process of establishing a worldwide criminal network. Origin stories will always be popular and here things are no different, with Solo and Kuryakin naturally disliking each other in the beginning only to discover how well they work together, and therefore U.N.C.L.E. will be born. A re-invention it is then...
The reasons to be optimistic stem primarily from the cast and crew that Ritchie has assembled in order to tell his spy story. Firstly, there are the leads: Henry Cavill is Solo and Armie Hammer plays Kuryakin. While it would be fair to say that Cavill has a little to prove in the lightness-of-touch stakes given that the majority of his roles, including a rather troubled God-like alien, have required a certain amount of intensity, Hammer has already proven more than capable of delivering comedic lines with aplomb in The Social Network and the underappreciated The Lone Ranger. If Ritchie can draw the same on-screen chemistry he did in the Sherlock Holmes films, then if nothing else this will be an entertaining double act. With Alicia Vikander on board, already the star of what is possibly 2015's best film so far, Ex Machina, and some heavyweight Britishness in the form of Hugh Grant and Jared Harris, U.N.C.L.E. has without doubt a balanced and interesting ensemble cast.
Another key strength of the film comes in the form of cinematographer John Mathieson. With experience behind the camera on films such as Gladiator, X-Men: First Class, and Great Expectations, this is a man who knows how to shoot both the epic and the personal. He also was the uncredited director of photography on Skyfall’s opening sequence, so has a little recent spy experience to draw upon.
If nothing else then, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. will look good on screen with proven talent both in front of and behind the camera. So what of its director?
After almost a decade of constant disappointment since the beginning of the new millennium (putting it politely) that included the dire Swept Away and the smugly incomprehensible Revolver, Ritchie suddenly rediscovered his talent with the release of Sherlock Holmes in 2009. Successfully providing a new perspective on a character everyone has knowledge of was no mean feat, and it took real bravado and confidence to release a steampunk-inspired vision of the famous Victorian detective. With a new version of the King Arthur legend on the horizon, it does appear that period productions are the way forward for Mr Ritchie; best avoid those cockney gangsters altogether.
Perhaps the real reason the film could be successful, though, will come from that lack of connection with the original television series. In carefully filtering out the best, most appropriate elements of the premise and then adapting that concept to fit with modern audiences, Ritchie and his writing team have removed an area of potential criticism and opened up the market considerably.
With nearly 50 years having passed since the television show ended, only those with excellent memories or with a penchant for all things ‘Swinging Sixties’ will have any relationship with the original. Where Bond, Sherlock, The Lone Ranger and countless other characters and shows retain an affection that remains undiminished by time and benefits from numerous retellings (there's that re- again!) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. simply doesn't. Stop anyone in the street and ask them to describe it (research tested for the purposes of this article) and the majority will offer little in the way of insight, perhaps save the names of the characters. For most audiences, this will be an entirely new film altogether.
So there is great hope and optimism that Ritchie will do the same for the 60's espionage thriller that he did for the quintessential Victorian sleuth. If we're lucky, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. will repeat the success of Kingsman and prove once again that there is still fun to be found in the spy genre.
THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is in UK cinemas from August 14th.