The Man From UNCLE's Biggest Enemy Is Itself - Why The Film Doesn't Work

A reboot that that doesn't like the original.

The big release of the past week (at least internationally) was Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Normally I'd do the usual highly opinionated review, but seeing as we had one of those last week, I thought instead I'd focus in a bit more depth on the film's defining problem. Overall I wasn't a massive fan of the movie. Ritchie's action was incomprehensibly constructed and often relegated to the background, the repeated "but you missed this bit" twists quickly went from cute to aggravating and any moments of flair (the truck scene was pretty cool) were undercut by a pervading obviousness. But these are all just symptoms of a more all-encompassing problem. As you€™ll be at least acutely aware, The Man From U.N.C.L.E was originally a TV series made in the sixties. Now there's an inherent issue with adapting a perceived brand like this - those who were fans of the original aren't going to care about a blockbuster remake, while the modern target audience probably don't even realise they're watching a pre-existing property. This isn't necessarily a guarantee for failure (we've just got the brilliant fifth Mission: Impossible, itself based on a sixties spy show), but the confusion over a series' name recognition means that all too often a reboot/remake can€™t strike the balance between reverence and progression, leaving us with something incredibly leaden. For an example of it done really wrong, look no further than The Lone Ranger, which bombed a couple of years back thanks to trying to be both a fun, modern reboot of the Hi-Hoing radio/TV series and a silly Johnny Depp caper. It misjudged itself on both counts and Disney paid a hefty price. That updating aspect (if not character recognition) was also somewhat the problem with the desperately revisionist Man Of Steel, which reinvigorated a character who'd been static on screen for decades. There's obviously something deliciously ironic about the casting of Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill (those film's stars) here, but comparing U.N.C.L.E. to them shows where the new movie went wrong. You see, with both of those 2013 duds the problem was poor execution of a fairly interesting idea; here the direction taken seems to be misguided on a fundamental level. Plainly, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. can't get past the source show's long shadow; in its presentation of both historical events and period styles, the film is half-heartedly trying to keep up with the Robert Vaughn/David McCallum original while also wanting to toss them aside. There comes a point where this could just be a Guy Ritchie period spy flick with no link to the show, and in swerving last-minute to avoid that the film stops itself being anything interesting.
First the history. From the opening credits - which provide a blow-by-blow account of the early Cold War - it's clear we're working on a plane with very little assumed knowledge. Explaining particular contextual events in a blockbuster is excusable (see X-Men: First Class and the Cuban Missile Crisis), but detailing an entire conflict to set up a tangential caper? Bit too far. Especially when the film is so flat in its use of the stalemate conflict - Cavill and Hammer are rivals more on a personal level than a patriotic one - it hardly even factors into events. In fact, the movie€™s villains are often referred to as Nazis, which may be partly in keeping with the international scope of the show, but is also a slapdash trotting out of cinemas idealistic go-to villains. This is all clearly born of a desire to speak to the most history-ignorant audience member, with countless scenes of non-stop exposition present throughout, but it's all so unnecessary to the film that the context is empty; U.N.C.L.E. could be high fantasy rather than a real-world offshoot and it'd feel the same. As for the look, this is a film that€™s getting described by many as style over substance, which is true to a point, but also gives the style a bit too much credit. Mad Men this ain't. Ignoring the always unreal-looking CGI, everything about the fashion and set trappings are so meticulous in their idealism that there€™s no sense that any of it€™s real. This is a skewed version of how people view the sixties, designed to play into pre-existing ideas rather than offer up anything close to authenticity (and by extension the show). Once again, it's done out of a perceived debt to the original rather than a creative desire. It's not like the film had to be a slave to legacy; Mission: Impossible shows how progression can reinvent old concepts. In fact, U.N.C.L.E.'s most exciting idea flies in the face of the show. At the end of the film, when Hugh Grant€™s section chief creates his new U.N.C.L.E., it€™s not the traditional nationalistically opposite duo, but an international trio; as emphasised in the final silhouette, Alicia Vikander€™s Gaby is an integral part of this reboot. Female characters have evolved into something more than an afterthought in recent years (pretty much ever since Katniss got on the scene), and while Gaby does at points fill the requisite femme fatale and damsel in distress roles, she€™s much more progressive than this sort of character would have been in the past (even as close back as 2010). In these final seconds the film finally gets together what it wants to do, twisting the property in a meaningful and modern, yet still caring, way.
Sadly, this moment of striking progression is somewhat undercut with the film€™s title obnoxiously name-dropped without any justification (the meaning of the acronym is hidden in the end credits), again ticking those brand check-boxes and serving as an emblematic example of the film's unnecessary perception of being shackled to the property. Oh well, at least a sequel can hope to run with this new stuff and take the all that historical catching up as writ. Or at least it would have, if anybody had actually gone to see it - The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was beaten at the worldwide box office by Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, now on it€™s third week of release. Because, y€™know, that series understands how to love and develop its original. Did you see The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? Let us know what you thought of it down in the comments.
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Film Editor (2014-2016). Loves The Usual Suspects. Hates Transformers 2. Everything else lies somewhere in the middle. Once met the Chuckle Brothers.

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