I have the great privilege of reviewing this movie. It has been a LONG time since I said this. Most of the movies I watched this year I vaguely acknowledge. Even the new Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation felt “meh” to me. But this classic 1960’s spy remake enthralled me.
Directed by Guy Ritchie (you might know him for his work for the two Sherlock Holmes movies staring Robert Downey Jr. and for his short marriage to Madonna) and released by Warner Bros. studios August 7th (London) and 14th (America) it is based on the classic 1960’s TV show by the same name. It has received underwhelming results at the box office scoring 20 million under its budget and average critical reviews.
The story focuses on three individuals. First, there is Napoleon Solo, an America spy blackmailed into working for the CIA after spending years of his life as a master thief. He goes to East Berlin to rescue the next character Gaby Teller, whose father is suspected to be making a nuclear warhead for a secret organization. Lastly, they are tracked by KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, sent to retrieve Gaby as well. After Solo and Gaby barely escape Illya, Solo learns that he will partner with the same man who had just tried to kill him, Illya, in order to find Gaby’s father and capture the warhead.
The original show starred Robert Vaughn as Solo and David McCallum as Illya and ran for three years. U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, and denotes Solo and Illya’s partnership. It received fairly moderate reviews from audiences and was nominated for multiple acting awards and even a Grammy for its soundtrack. Much of the film’s popularity centered on David McCallum’s character, who recieved more fan mail than any other MGM star. He was SOOO popular he was even referred to as the “Blond Beatle”. Much of the show depended on campy effects, acting and humor but for its time it was charming and sadly short lived.
Since 1993, people have tried to adapt this show into a movie. John Davis was largely responsible for this, sending in at least 12 scripts over a 20 year period. Famous actors George Clooney and Tom Cruise almost joined the cast, ironically as the same character Solo, but could not due to injury or other obligations. Yes, this film took a long time to produce.
The final result? Henry Cavill, who recently played the Superman in Man of Steel (2013), stepped into Solo’s role, Armie Hammer from The Social Network (2010) became Illya and Alcia Vikander played Gaby. So, after such a long wait what did the American public receive? I say something spectacular.
Popular opinion means nothing to me. Where would I be if it did? Cheering on 21 Jumpstreet (2012) for its “witty” humor? (Not a good thing to think about.) The humor for UNCLE was engaging but sophisticated, it’s characters irrevocably charming, and it’s story eye grabbing from start to finish. The problem I saw with the new Mission Impossible installment was that it did not bring anything new to the spy genre. I guessed everything that happened and watched dispondently as each plot twist unfolded as I expected. It was interesting but only for the moment. In contrast, I am still thinking about UNCLE and reflecting on its story.
I liked how each scene played itself out. Sometimes it omitted necessary information to build suspense. It was not till afterword that the character’s actions made sense. One example is near the end with the detonation of an enemy ship. The script purposefully masked essential information so the humorous demise of the villain could remain a mystery till the very end. I cannot spoil it, but suffice it to say the story kept me guessing.
Let’s talk about each individual character. Solo had this gentlemanly aura about him unseen in movies today. I had no idea he played Superman till I looked it up. He played this character well. He treated every situation, no matter how dangerous, good naturedly, and his sarcasm brought such charm to each scene. The only thing I did not like about him was his womanizing.
One scene I particularly like came when he and Illya tried to escape from the villainess Victoria’s research facility. After being thrown from the get away boat he swims to shore, climbs into a truck, puts on a charming Italian love song, and eats a sandwich while Illya continues to drive back and forth trying to escape the other boats. Eventually, after he had his fun he drove the truck onto the other boat, returns to the hotel and seduces Victoria. After seeing him in action, I realized how much I miss guys wearing suits in films like in the 1940’s.
Next is miss Gaby. She added a needed femininity to the movie, but also some of its intelligence. It was refreshing to see a young woman working hard, covered in grease under a car still embrace wearing nice clothes and using modest speech. She walked with poise and did not see the need to one up every man she saw. She thought clearly about each situation and looked to her two co-spies as equals, unless they started fighting unnecessarily. It was also nice to know she was not a crazy super skilled ninja spy woman. I have seen too many of those lately.
Then there is Illya. At first, I liked Solo better. But as the movie progressed, I found Illya the more interesting of the two. He had a complicated background, with his father in a Siberian jail and his mother socially ruined. Also he had a bit of a temper problem. But I noticed he got better at controlling himself and he NEVER hurt or attacked anyone innocent.
It was interesting watching him become closer and opening to other people. Solo, though at first a nuisance and a bitter enemy, gradually became his good friend. Now, Gaby is a different story. Watching THEM get closer was captivating. It was, as Vlad from Anastasia (1997) put it “An unspoken attraction”. Every time they got close enough to kiss or have a moment someone would interfere. (When Solo interrupted them, I have a feeling it was on purpose.)
Overall, Illya was my favorite character for multiple reasons. He was an honest man, respectful of women, intelligent, self-contained and subject to change. Side note: Hammer’s Russian accent was brilliantly done! I really thought he was Russian. I did not recognize him as the character from The Social Network. Then again, I hated that movie so it makes perfect sense.
I loved the film’s ambiance and setting. It takes place midst the Cold War and looked authentic. Whether it was the music, the cloths, their speech patterns or even the technology, I felt transported back in time. There were even shots of President Kennedy’s addresses in the early 1960’s.
Though the movie is painted as a spy movie, I do not think that was its purpose. What was more important were the relationships between the characters and staying true to the setting. The spy and action scenes were just an added bonus. But that is what makes the film so likeable. I have seen many spy movies with enough action to last me a life time. It was refreshing to sit back and enjoy such a fascinating story and its characters.
The musical score is amazing. I loved every song and thought Daniel Pemberton set the mood for each scene flawlessly. Though he has mostly worked for TV scores, at the World Soundtrack Awards in 2014, he was named the Discovery Of The Year. (For good reason!) My favorite song was for the aforementioned scene with Solo sitting in the truck. I believe it is called, “Que Vuole Questa Musica Stasera”. Music is so important in films because it sets tone and sparks needed emotions from its audience. It was nice hearing something so fresh for once!
I wholeheartedly recommend this movie. It is my favorite film from this year and a needed blessing midst all the other forgettable summer blockbusters. You can guarantee I will buy it as soon as I get the chance. Did I mention that there is little to no language and no vivacious sexual innuendos? (Even Solo’s less than appropriate scenes were incredibly downplayed.) That was nice. Though my opinion directly opposes critics and audiences, I just cannot find anything wrong with this movie. It is cleverly written, funny and altogether memorable.
Total Score: 5/5
1. Illya Kuryakin: You’re trembling…
Gaby Teller: That’s because I’m scared!
Illya Kuryakin: It’s going to be okay.
2. [Solo and Kuryakin meet after spending a night in their hotel rooms]
Napoleon Solo: [shows him electronic bugs] These. Are. Russian-made.
Illya Kuryakin: One moment.
[leaves and returns]
Illya Kuryakin: [shows him electronic bugs] These. Are. American-made. And very low-tech.
3. Napoleon Solo: [telling Kuryakin to let himself get mugged] Take it like a pussy.
Illya Kuryakin: This is NOT the Russian way.
4. Napoleon Solo: [seeing Illya grabbing the rear of their car] He’s trying. To stop. The car.
Gaby Teller: We’re struggling here. Why don’t you take a shot at him?
Napoleon Solo: Somehow, it just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do.
5. Illya Kuryakin: [as Sanders is being electrocuted in the other room] Looks like he fixed the short.
Napoleon Solo: Damn. I left my jacket in there.
6. [a drunk Gaby annoys Illya]
Illya Kuryakin: [to Gaby] Don’t make me put you over my knee…
Gaby Teller: So you don’t want to dance… but you do want to wrestle.
Illya:That is not what I meant.
[cut to Gaby and Illya fighting]
7. [Illya tries to put a ring on Gaby]
Gaby Teller: We may be engaged, but I’m my own woman! Besides, I don’t have a ring! It was stolen, remember?
Illya Kuryakin: A good Russian husband would go out early and got his fiancée a new ring, as soon as he could.