I have to confess that I was very disappointed when I first learned that Guy Ritchie would be directing the long-awaited Man From U.N.C.L.E. film. As at least some of you know (to your great misfortune), I'm not a fan of Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies and assumed that Ritchie would decide to rewrite The_Man_from_U.N.C.L.E. the way he thought it should be and boast that he could do a better job than the original creators, Sam Wolfe and Norman Felton. He certainly made that claim when it came to Sherlock Holmes and it was for this reason that I boycotted the movie. Anywaaaaaaaay...fast forward to the first MFU film trailer. I watched it reluctantly, thinking that I would probably hate it, and was pleasantly surprised. If the film was anything like the trailer, it might actually be pretty decent. I decided that if the hardcore MFU fans gave the film positive reviews, I would probably go see it. That was before the extended trailer was released. Once I saw that, there was no question that I would be seeing the film:
So what did I think of Ritchie's take on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? I LOVED it.
Going by the first trailer alone, I could see that Ritchie had captured that sixties look wonderfully. In fact, in many ways, his sixties looks more realistic than the sixties of the original TV show, which relied heavily on MGM movie sets and California locations that may or may not have born any resemblance to the country featured in a given episode. The film's art direction is cool, classy and very stylish with beautiful locations (such as Rome) and sets that fit the time period and the MFU universe perfectly. Even the film quality has a kind of sixties feel to it. I'm not sure if this is due to the lighting choices or filters, but, to me, the look of the film seems almost reminiscent of Bullitt, even without the car chases. Lastly, Daniel Pemberton's score really contributes to the atmosphere of the film. At times, it has a kind of sixties heist flavour, but there are also some jazzy elements that remind me of Lalo Schifrin's music for the show. Of course, art direction and music can only take you so far. A more important question should be whether Ritchie was able to get to the heart of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., to tap into those elements that made the original show work.
Although their backstories changed, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are very much as they were on the show, only darker and edgier. As the backstories for the main characters on the show were always sketchy at best, I don't have any issue with Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram tinkering with Napoleon's and Illya's backgrounds. Actually, I think these backgrounds enrich the characters and make them even more interesting. Saying that, Napoleon and Illya still possess those core qualities that they have on the show. Solo retains all his wit, charm and smoothness, while Illya is cool, logical and both physically and mentally agile. In some ways, I'd argue that these qualities are even more apparent in the film, especially when it comes to Illya. In the film, Illya is very much in the KGB mold. His accent is much stronger and his English not quite as polished. He's colder and more ruthless, though, ironically, more driven by his emotions than the Illya we see in the show. He has a wicked temper, which is handled beautifully in the film. Whenever Illya gets angry, the sound fades and becomes muffled and we see his fists clench and his hands tremble. It's great to see this inner conflict in a character who works so hard to remain disciplined and in control. Napoleon isn't exactly free of issues either. He's being forced to work for the CIA and doesn't really play well with others. As he tells Illya, he prefers to work alone. That's why it's so much fun seeing Napoleon not only have to take on a partner, but a partner who works for the KGB.
What I love most about this film is that it's essentially an origin story. We finally get to see that first meeting between Napoleon and Illya, something that has only been tackled by fic writers up till now. And it's a fabulous first meeting. They're working on opposite sides with very different agendas. Either man could have easily killed the other, but a sense of mutual respect, possibly even admiration, seems to hold them back. However the tension and distrust remains even after they become partners. They plant bugs on each other and go off on their own when they should be working together. Napoleon calls Illya "Peril" (short for "Red Peril"), while Illya calls Napoleon "Cowboy". It's immensely satisfying watching these two realize that they work well together and can actually be an asset to each other. At the same time, we're seeing antagonism transitioning into friendship, which is a real treat to see on screen, especially between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, who have such fantastic chemistry.
Is Ritchie's film aimed more towards fans of the show or an audience that has no knowledge of the original? I'd argue that the answer is both. You can go in knowing nothing about the show and thoroughly enjoy the movie. On the other hand, I think there are enough familiar elements from the show to satisfy most fans. I deliberately avoided reading any Guy Ritchie interviews, so I don't know what his attitude was towards the source material. However, it seems to me that he tried to work with the established formula of the show and play with the existing framework rather than make drastic changes. Here are some patterns in the film that I recognized from the show:
~ Napoleon/Illya banter
~ Napoleon/Illya competitiveness (aggressive at first, but then more friendly and teasing (as seen in the show))
~ Napoleon and Illya taking turns rescuing each other
~ An "innocent" being recruited to help Napoleon and Illya on their mission
~ Innocent being the daughter of a brilliant scientist who has disappeared (e.g. was kidnapped by the villains)
~ Villains have concocted a plan that could place the whole world in peril (and not of the Red variety)
~ The villains have their lair/laboratory on a remote island
~ Female villain very much in the MFU mold. She is glamourous, sophisticated and sexy. She reminded me of Angelique from the first season of the show.
~ Exotic locations (more so in the film as Ritchie could actually use real locations)
~ Cool cars and cool car chases
~ Napoleon's taste is more conservative and business-like, while Illya's is more trendy and in keeping with the times. When Illya delivers fashion advice to Gaby, there's a nice nod (though it may not have been conscious or deliberate) to Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. - The Fifteen Years Later Affair where Illya runs a fashion house called Vanya's.
There are obviously some differences between the film and the show. In the film, we lose the James Bond props, such as the communicator pens, and there's more emphasis placed on the aftermath of the Second World War, not to mention Cold War hostilities and paranoia. As much as I love the original show, there are times (especially in the third season) when it resembles Batman more than a spy show. I don't mind tossing aside the groovy toys and psychedelic goofiness in favour of Ritchie's darker, more realistic vision. I really like seeing Napoleon and Illya relying more on their wits and skills. The film succeeds in addressing historical issues while touching on themes that resonate with a modern audience.
I can highly recommend funkyinfishnet's excellent (and slightly more spoilery) review if you'd like even more analysis of the film.
Crossposted at http://rusty-armour.dreamwidth.org/140209.html