Monday 17 August 2015

The Man From UNCLE

A Few Of My Waverly Things

The Man From UNCLE
2015 USA
Directed by Guy Ritchie
UK cinema release print.

Hmmm... okay, so this is one of those films that make reviewing these things both interesting and, frankly, extremely frustrating. I saw the trailers for this and the tone looked somehow wrong and, well... it certainly is but there’s a lot of good stuff here too.

I used to watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E as a kid on TV, mostly in the many movie incarnations... some of which were just edited versions of compiled episodes and others which were original stories (if memory serves me correctly). It’s been a long time since I saw any of those projected onto a big screen... I think I saw one or two around about the early to late seventies, on screenings at holiday camps etc when I was a kid. I remember the biggest factors in me getting into these things, as it always seemed to be, were the musical scores on these. Although the original The Man From UNCLE theme by Jerry Goldsmith is what most purists will probably cite as the best, I personally prefer the reworkings and scores by other composers such as Gerald Fried and Richard Shores... once the unusual time signature of maestro Jerry’s had been changed to something more usual (which I really don’t mind in this particular instance... not nearly as much as the original composer did) and made more typically jazzier. I used to hum this stuff all the time as a kid.

Now I don’t know much about Guy Ritchie but I saw his excellent Sherlock Holmes film and his not that bad but, not great, sequel to it some years ago. I can see that he’s a great talent and has some nice, possibly even innovative stuff, going on in his films. As such, I was expecting at least a half watchable movie from this and The Man From UNCLE is certainly more than that. However, the film at no time seems like either and extension or a reboot which is faithful in any way, shape or form to the original series or movies... and it really seems to make no attempt to be that, it has to be said.

For me, the movie needed to have at least two things in it besides characters who were like the originals... that was a variation of the original Jerry Goldsmith melody line plus baseline to give it a musical identity and, of course, those signature scene changes which sent the camera fast panning off to the left or right with a jumble of “incomprehensible to the eye” image movement which snapped you into the next location. I thought that the studio would at least retain these things but, alas, it really didn’t and I think this hurts the film tremendously in terms of being an addition to The Man From UNCLE universe.

As far as the characters are concerned, the movie puts too much history into the characters and this means they have been severely changed from their earlier counterparts. Bond author Ian Fleming originally created the Napoleon Solo character for TV before being pulled off of the project due to contractual conflicts with the Bond series of films (again, if my memory serves me correctly). However, the character name, at least, made it into the book of Goldfinger (and the movie version, reviewed here, although in the film he’s just referred to as Solo), so that’s kind of interesting in terms of development times. The character name was used in the book five years before the show aired so I’m not sure if that was a long development time or just a case of Fleming using an old name he liked... he also contributed the character April Dancer, who would later be played by Stefanie Powers in the TV show The Girl From UNCLE. 

In this updated version, Solo has somehow become an ex-thief and Ilya Kuryakin is a big gorilla of a Russian who suffers from psychotic episodes. This is a far cry from the original characters and it really puts the final nail in the coffin as far as continuity with the originals goes.

That being said, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are both absolutely great playing this movie’s versions of Solo and Kuryakin... the audience just has to accept they are playing different characters. They are ably supported by Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki playing both ally and villain in this although, it has to be said that Debicki seems a little underused as the main antagonist. One wonders if there was a much larger film, much of which was left on the cutting room floor for this one. Certainly the visual absence of a pay off scene involving Kuryakin and Count Lippi, in a nice reference to Ian Fleming’s Count Lippe character in Thunderball (reviewed here) and the use of montages which promise larger action sequences than were revealed, perhaps, may indicate that this movie has been heavily trimmed... probably by the director I should imagine. All that being said, the film is a joy to watch once you can get over the fact that the only character who is remotely like his original source is Hugh Grant channeling a younger version of Leo G. Carrol’s Mr. Waverly character.

The film is set in the 1960s and that’s certainly good. The director seems to enjoy playing with a kind of hyper real version of the sixties which is not a million miles away from the style employed through various espionage films over the years... just not really The Man From UNCLE franchise. One of the things he does is employ split screen techniques such as those popularised in movies like the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair and he has a great slant on this at the end of the first sequence he does in this manner, where the vertical split from two separate, parallel displayed shots is pulled away revealing that you are actually seeing a single shot which is split by a vertical in the composition already. He does this less successfully later in the movie but the first time he does that here it’s a nice little reveal.

Another interesting thing he does is to take the old horror cliché of having something important happening in the background of a shot which the main characters are unaware of, the audience witnessing what’s going on before the characters realise it. He uses it for comic effect and, certainly, the first time he does this it works quite well. However, I have to say that it becomes something of a signature flourish throughout the film and, by the third time he relies on this technique, I was getting a little tired of it, to be completely truthful.

However, asides from all these little moans, it’s actually a great little 1960s style homage movie with bright colours, nice dialogue, great performances and a very freestyle shooting methodology - Ritchie seems to use every kind of different camera move and trick in the book and it’s really to his credit, and the editor’s, that he manages to make it all work so well without ever once jarring the viewer. There is a certain positive chemistry between all the lead actors and actresses too, which really helps the film, even though these are not the characters you are familiar with from the original show.

Daniel Pemberton’s percussion heavy score is the icing on the cake. Ritchie uses a number of songs, many of them put to surprisingly good use on the soundtrack, but Pemberton’s sixties style spy score is absolutely brilliant and this soundtrack was an instant purchase for me on CD. My one regret, as I stated earlier, was that the powers that be had decided not to use the original theme tune, which would have greatly lifted the movie more into UNCLE territory and I would have really liked to have heard what Pemberton would have come up with  for this. I was already a fan of his score for The Awakening (movie reviewed here) and it was a blast to hear him having the opportunity to do something this flamboyant in a modern film score... hopefully he will become a bit more well known in the industry after this because, Goldsmith cues or not, it’s a pretty cool score.

And that’s about all I have to say about The Man From UNCLE: The Guy Ritchie Affair. It’s not the best version of the source material it could have been. In fact, it couldn’t be much further from it even if the director had tried to update it chronologically to modern times. However, it is a great little gem of a movie and if you are not someone going in with any expectations that it needs to live up to the original, then you should have a lot of fun with it. Like the 1960s Modesty Blaise movie, this film is an absolutely appalling adaptation... but it’s a really fun film. Go see it.

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