“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

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“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

The year 2015 seemed to be a big year for cinematic spies. At least three movies have been released about the world of espionage. And one is scheduled to be released some three months from now. One of the movies that was already released was Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation of the NBC 1964-1968 television series called “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”.

The television series from the 1960s began with its two main characters – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – already working for the international intelligence agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Ritchie’s film is basically an origin story and tells how Napoleon and Illya first became partners in the espionage business. Set in 1963, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” begins in East Berlin, where professional thief-turned-C.I.A. Agent Napoleon Solo is tasked with retrieving a young woman named Gaby Teller and escorting her to West Berlin. Gaby is the daughter of an alleged Nazi scientist-turned-U.S. collaborator, who has disappeared a year or two ago from the United States. Tasked with stopping Napoleon from achieving his goal is a highly skilled K.G.B. agent named Illya Kuryakin.

Although Napoleon’s mission is a success, he is ordered by his C.I.A. handler Saunders to work with Illya and Gaby to investigate a shipping company owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra, a wealthy couple of Nazi sympathizers. Due to the couple’s intent to create their own private nuclear weapon, the C.I.A. and K.G.B. have decided to make this operation a joint effort. Gaby becomes essential to the mission, since her uncle Rudi works for the Vinciguerras.

Mixed reviews greeted “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” when it first hit the theaters. Well, according to Wikipedia, the movie achieved mixed reviews. Judging from box office results, the movie barely made a profit. It seemed a pity that not many moviegoers were willing to take a chance on this film. Then again, I am not that surprised. Warner Brothers Studios barely made any effort to publicize this movie. And this was a mistake in my eyes. Today’s generation of young moviegoers are not familiar with the 1960s television series. In fact, the series had not been seen on the television screen since TNT Channel aired a handful of episodes back in 1996. The studio could have stepped up its game in publicizing the film. They could have also used re-released box sets of the old series at a reasonable price as tie-ins. And some moviegoers old enough to remember Norman Felton’s series, complained that the movie was not an exact replica. I have nothing to say about that. Well, I do. But that will come later.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” is not perfect. Actually, what movie is? And I do have one or two minor complaints and a major one. Okay, minor complaints. I was not that impressed by Daniel Pemberton’s score for the movie’s second half. I found it overbearing to the point that it nearly distracted me from the plot. My second complaint revolved around James Herbert’s editing. Well, I was impressed with his editing in most of the film . . . especially the car chase in East Berlin and the sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s break-in of the Vinciguerras’s shipyard. But I was not impressed by Herbert’s editing in the final action sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s attempt to rescue Gaby from a fleeing Alexander Vinciguerra. I found it slightly confusing and thought it had too many close ups. In fact, the sequence reminded me – in a negative way – of Paul Greengrass’ direction of the second and third “BOURNE” movies.

However, my main beef with “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” proved to be Joanna Johnston’s costume designs. The movie is supposed to be set in 1963. The costumes DID NOT reflect the fashions of that year. I kid you not. The following image is an example of women’s fashion in 1963:

Look at the images of Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debecki:

I cannot deny that Joanna Johnston’s designs are both original and gorgeous to look at. But . . . they are not a reflection of the movie’s 1963 setting. Judging from Vikander and Debecki’s costumes, I would say that the movie was actually set some time between 1968 and 1970 or 1971. And in the end, the movie’s costumes only reminded me of the costume mistakes featured in the 2011 movie, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s plot written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. I have always wondered how Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin first met and started working for U.N.C.L.E. The television series never revealed this history, considering it began with the pair already working for the agency. And Rictchie and Wigram’s plot more than satisfied my curiosity. They made some changes from the television series. One, Napoleon became a former thief whom the C.I.A. blackmailed into working for them in exchange for avoiding prison. In some ways, this newly imagined Napoleon Solo reminded me of the Alexander Mundy character from the 1968-1970 television series, “IT TAKES A THIEF”. The Illya Kuryakin character underwent a few changes as well. He remained a somewhat stoic and uber professional agent, with a penchant for the occasional sardonic humor. But Ritchie and Wigram gave him a fearsome temper that was usually triggered by anything relating to his father, who had been dishonored by a scandal during World War II.

Ritchie and Wigram’s script not only utilized a bit of “IT TAKES A THIEF”, but also some characters from the TV version of “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” It seemed obvious to me that the Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra were based on the Gervaise Ravel and Harold Bufferton characters that were portrayed by Anne Francis and John Van Dreelan in two Season One episodes. And fighting neo-Nazis is a theme that has permeated many spy movies and television shows throughout the years. Especially neo-Nazis with nuclear weapons. In fact, I just saw a Season One episode of the 60s’ series called (1.05) “The Deadly Games Affair” in which a former Nazi who tried to kick start a crazy plot to bring back the former glory of Hitler’s party. For “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, I thought Ritchie and Wigram created an interesting twist on theme, by incorporating the Swinging Sixties scene in Europe . . . especially through characters like Victoria Vinciguerra and Gaby’s Uncle Rudi. As for the movie’s dialogue . . . well, I just adored it. I especially adored the interaction between Napoleon and Illya – especially in one scene in which they argued over the right wardrobe for Gaby to wear during their mission.

Speaking of performances, I tried to recall a performance that seemed . . . well, off kilter or just plain bad. Perhaps other critics came across such performances. I did not. Armie Hammer had an interesting task in his portrayal of K.G.B. agent Illya Kuryakin. He had the difficult task of conveying many aspects of Illya’s personality – his no-nonsense attitude, ruthlessness, emotional streak and barely controllable temper. And he did it . . . with great skill. I cannot recall if David McCallum ever had to deal with such an array of personality traits and blend them so seamlessly. Henry Cavill made an extremely charming Napoleon Solo. More importantly, he did an excellent job in conveying the character’s talent for manipulation and judge of character. I realize that his Napoleon Solo seemed more like an adaptation of the Alexander Mundy character. But watching his performance made me realize how much he reminded me of Robert Vaughn’s performance in the NBC series. Alicia Vikander, who portrayed Gaby Teller, proved to be such a surprise for me. One must understand that I have never seen “A ROYAL AFFAIR”. And I honestly do not recall her performance in “THE FIFTH ESTATE”. But I was very impressed by her performance as East German defector Gaby Teller, who turned out to be vital to Napoleon and Illya’s mission. Vikander connected very well with both of her leading men, especially Hammer. And she did a great job in conveying Gaby’s intelligence, toughness and strong will.

Hugh Grant pretty much took me by surprise with his performance as Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. He was charming and witty, as usual. Of course, as usual. He is Hugh Grant. But he was also effective and projected a strong presence as U.N.C.L.E.’s pragmatic leader, who is ruthless enough to make some tough choices. When I first saw Elizabeth Debicki in “THE GREAT GATSBY”, I was very impressed by her performance. I was even more impressed by her portrayal of the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra. She conveyed a great deal of charm, style and wit in her performance. I also thought Debicki made a scary villain. Hell, she was one of the scariest villains of the Summer 2015 season. I was surprised to see Sylvester Groth, who played Gaby’s Fascist uncle. The last time I saw him, he portrayed Nazi Joseph Goebbels in 2009’s “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. And he was funnier. He was a bit more scary as Gaby’s snobbish, yet sadistic Uncle Rudi. But he was also very funny . . . especially in his last scene in the movie. The movie also featured Jared Harris, whose take on a C.I.A. station chief seemed more like a spoof on American authority figures, along with solid performances from Luca Calvani, Simona Caparrini and Christian Berkel (who also appeared in “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” had a few flaws. This is to be expected for just about any movie. And yes, I realize that it is not an exact replica of the NBC 1964-1968 series. Mind you, I could care less, for I believe originality is more important than repetition. And that is what I liked about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” Director Guy Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram took an old television series and put their own original spin on it. And they were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill.

“BULLITT” (1968) Review

Below is my review of the 1968 classic crime drama, “BULLITT”, which starred Steve McQueen and was directed by Peter Yates:

”BULLITT” (1968) Review

Many fans of Steve McQueen seemed to revel in their view of him as some kind of epitome of 1960s Hollywood cool. And his starring role in the 1968 crime drama, ”BULLITT” seemed to symbolize this viewpoint more than any of his other roles – before or after. As much as I feel reluctant to embrace the idea of coolness of any kind, I must admit that McQueen did project some kind of aura in the film that made him such a strong screen presence . . . just like any film star worth his or her weight in gold.

Fortunately, ”BULLITT” also happened to be a first-class crime thriller that was directed with style, energy and competency by Peter Yates. Based upon Robert L. Fish’s 1963 novel, “Mute Fish”, the movie told the story of a San Francisco lieutenant named Frank Bullitt (McQueen), who is assigned by a haughty and well-born local politician named Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to protect an informant (Felice Orlandi) from the Chicago mob. Chalmers hoped that bringing down the Chicago mob would lead to an improvement in his political standing. However, the assignment turns into a murder mystery that resulted into some surprising twists.

The head of Warner Brothers-Seven Arts studio had originally planned for ”BULLITT” to be shot on location in Los Angeles, California. But director Yates felt that the City of Angels had been seen quite enough in previous crime dramas and mysteries. He also had no desire to shoot the film under the studio’s constant eye. So, Yates convinced the studio to allow him to shoot the film on location in San Francisco. As much as I love Los Angeles, I am glad that Yates made this choice. San Francisco proved to be a perfect setting for the movie and its surrounding hills provided the perfect backdrop for the movie’s car chase that became one of the most influential car chase sequences in movie history.

Speaking of the car chase, I understand that McQueen took lessons in stunt driving in order to perform some of the stunts in the chase sequence. Now, McQueen only drove a little in the scene. Most of his stunt driving had been performed by Bud Ekins, famed stuntman and motorcycle racer. And I have to give kudos to stunt coordinator Carey Loftin for creating an exciting and memorable sequence. Another favorite action sequence of mine proved to be the final showdown at the San Francisco International Airport – a scene filled with both tension and superb action. Yates’ direction and Frank P. Keller’s film editing proved to be the decisive factors that made the above scenes first rate. Keller went on to win an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.

Screenwriters Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner did an excellent job of adapting Robert L. Fish’s 1963 novel, ”Mute Witness” for the screen. Not only did they managed to re-create a murder mystery that proved to be somewhat complex with great competency, the two writers also managed to delve into Frank Bullitt’s persona. And this is a job that could have proven to be nearly impossible, due to the character’s subtle and reserved personality. The Mystery Writers of America rewarded Trustman and Kleiner for their work with a 1969 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Screenplay.

Although many fans tend to view ”BULLITT” as a showcase for Steve McQueen, I noticed that he had been ably supported by a talented cast. Robert Vaughn (another actor who became a 1960s icon for his starring role in the television series, ”THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” ) expertly portrayed politician Walter Chalmers as a charming, self-involved and arrogant man who expects the world to revolve around him, due to his wealth. Portraying Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy, was a 24 year-old Jacqueline Bisset. Just a year earlier, she had a brief appearance in the James Bond spoof ”CASINO ROYALE”. The role of Bullitt’s girlfriend, who fears that he might love his job more than her, not only hinted the talent that would make her a star, it proved to be a career-making one for her. Don Gordon (who also happened to be a close friend of McQueen’s) gave a quiet and solid performance as as Sergeant Delgetti, Bullitt’s right-hand man. Simon Oakland also gave solid support as one of Bullitt’s police superiors, Captain Bennett. The movie also featured brief appearances by future stars such as Robert Duvall as a local cab driver, Norman Fell as Police Captain Baker – Chalmers’ toady – and Georg Stanford Brown as a young, hospital doctor.

As for star Steve McQueen . . . he practically owned the movie. Hell, he deserved to own the movie. Not only did he provide his usual magnetic screen presence, McQueen gave what I believe to be one of the best performances in his career. I had heard on the movie’s DVD featurette that McQueen did not really view himself as an actor. Instead, he saw himself as a mere reactor to his co-stars’ lines. I wish . . . I hope that someone had told him that reacting is one of the qualities that marked a first-rate screen performer. And McQueen did it very well. Hell! He could be a first-rate actor when words came out of his mouth. In the case of ”BULLITT”, his character turned out to be not particularly verbose. Which left McQueen to express Frank Bullitt’s emotions via facial expressions and in his eyes. What I liked about McQueen’s performance was that he did not simply portray the character as some epitome of 60s cool. He portrayed Bullitt as an intelligent and quiet man whose no-nonsense personality seemed to lack patience for either incompetence or egotistical types like Chalmers.

Thanks to critics, some moviegoers and organizations like the American Film Institute (AFI), the public is expected to accept their prevailing views about any movie . . . regardless if they view a movie as either a classic, mediocre or simply terrible. Because of my nature, I have a tendency to ignore the prevailing view and form my own opinion. ”BULLITT” seemed to have the reputation as a classic crime melodrama. And Frank Bullitt is viewed as one of McQueen’s best roles. In the case of ”BULLITT” and McQueen, I would heartily agree.