In the mid-sixties there was no spy phenomenon as big as "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.", except of course, James Bond and let's not forget "The Avengers" (John Steed/Emma Peel, that is). "U.N.C.L.E.", however, went through the roof during its early phases, making Robert Vaughn and David McCallum household names, as well as their characters, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin pop-cultural icons. Incidentally, though the series was developed by the innovative Sam Rolfe, it was conceptually influenced by Bond's daddy, Ian Fleming.
U.N.C.L.E., which stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, took a stand against the chaotic command of T.H.R.U.S.H.: Tech Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity (how's that for a mouthful?). U.N.C.L.E. was a combined agency effort: though Solo was American bred, Kuryakin was KGB connected. Kuryakin was still faithful to Solo, who like Bond, was every inch the suave, lady's man. Their boss (i.e., their version of "M"), was Alexander Waverly, portrayed by renown character-actor Leo G. Carroll: the series' sentimental, supporting lead.
"U.N.C.L.E." spawned several films (episodes shown theatrically in color during a time when black-and-white television was the norm, with added, sensual footage not seen on the home screen). The films were profitable worldwide, and though "Return of the Man from Uncle" premiered as a high-profile movie-of-the-week in '83, it's odd that a theatrical relaunch of the franchise has taken this long.
Nevertheless, the "U.N.C.L.E" revival has surfaced: big-budgeted and directed by hipster Guy Ritchie, who co-scripted with Lionel Wigram. It stars Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin: yep, Superman and the Lone Ranger together at last (well, sorta). Affable Hugh Grant portrays Waverly, with Jared Harris on hand as C.I.A. agent Sanders, who keeps us properly cautious in the good ol' fashioned Cold War way.
Joining the boys is the lovely, mechanically inclined East German, Gaby Teller (Alicia "Ex Machina" Vikander). She's not in the least timid about throwing herself into the action and remains a constant sight-for-sore-eyes: for all intents and purposes, this story's "Girl From U.N.C.L.E.".
The sinister lead is the cool Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), who's as fiendish as she is statuesque: a veritable Satan cloaked. Her sadistic motivation is pure T.H.R.U.SH., with a desire to tear down the world via nuclear destruction (and with an connection to Teller's physicist dad, no less). In this regard, she's much like any aspiring terrorist (only lots prettier) and to Solo, far more treacherous than even the most skilled KGB agent could be. After all, Kuryakin is on his side (albeit reluctantly), and together our heroes face a series of outlandish obstacles to defeat their foe.
The circumstances churn lots of comical bickering and sincere camaraderie, making this U.N.C.L.E. more of a buddy movie than a typical, spy/espionage flick. Then again, the principles were always tight-nit on the series, and considering the third season's shameless levity, the film's shenanigans may not be so out of place.
In other ways, Ritchie's version mirrors his revisionist Sherlock Holmes adventures: a sea-sawing of high-flying danger and unabashed superheroics. Thank goodness the flow never feels awkward, perhaps because its underlying unevenness is charged by movie-serial thrills, quick wit and exotic visuals. Let's face it: for this sort of adventure, that's essentially all one needs.
Also to the remake's benefit, it's an unapologetic nostalgic piece, with a Daniel Pemberton throwback score, which often invokes Ennio Morricone, constantly accompanied by cool cars and colorful clothing. The overall package is an indisputable gift to older fans, but hopefully the film will inspire youngsters to seek out the original, so they might see what all the hub-bub was (and still is) about. Indeed, what was old is new again, and in either case, it's all good fun.