Blu-ray Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a “Thank You” to Guy Ritchie from Warner Bros. Much like the studio rewarded Zack Synder for the films 300 and Watchmen with allowing him to do his dream project Sucker Punch, Warner Bros. is thanking Ritchie for the success of the two Sherlock Holmes movies he did for the studio.

It has been a struggle to get the television property to the big screen; casting leads would come and go (George Clooney among others) as would filmmakers (Steven Soderbergh was the closest until he left over budget and casting concerns). But it is Ritchie and collaborator Lionel Wigram who have cracked the puzzle by creating an origin story for the Cold War-era TV series, which ran for four seasons on NBC (1964-1968) and presented a scenario where an American agent and a Russian agent cooperated in pursuit of justice under the pretense of an international organization.

The show itself was inspired by the recently launched James Bond film franchise, and Bond creator Ian Fleming partially developed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. by having American agent Napoleon Solo be a character in the novel Goldfinger. Instead, he would morph into James Bond for the small screen, possessing many of the same attributes (charm, efficiency and a weakness for beautiful women). But Solo is less intense and brutal than the famous English spy. Those characteristics better describe Russian operative Illya Kuryakin.

Set a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union are in pursuit of a formula for enriched uranium that could benefit each world power immensely. Enter East Berlin car mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the prettiest grease-smeared chop shop girl you’re likely to see. She is sought by Solo and Kuryakin (Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer), top agents of the CIA and KGB respectively, for her familial ties in the development of an atomic bomb. Their distinct personalities, with Solo as the debonair one and Kuryakin as being temperamental, are matched by their rebellious nature. Playing like the spy versions of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they meet in a great opening number as Solo tries to extract Gabby out of Berlin.

Neither is thrilled when their bosses order them to work together against a common threat, but a temporary detente is imposed on both. The enemy is a covert neo-fascist organization headed by Italian power couple Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki and Luca Calvani). These heirs to a family shipping empire are looking to move more than bottles of fine Italian wine and olive oil; their real business is atomic weaponry made with the same formula of enriched uranium that both world powers covet. The plan calls for Gaby and Kuryakin to pose as a couple as they gain an entree to the Vinciguerras through her Uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth), who works for them. Solo’s cover is as an antiques dealer who uses his charm to seduce Victoria as his means of infiltration. The mission to Rome allows for plenty of chic-ness be it in the clothing or set design.

It didn’t take much convincing for me to be entertained by The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Granted, the film is mostly style than substance, but the cavalcade of ’60s fashion, ’60s hair, ’60s everything is simply stunning. It’s like Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram daydreaming Federico Fellini and adding color. Even better is the chemistry between leads Cavill and Hammer. Ritchie and Wigram’s writing is so fluid that the dialogue pops as each agent tries to out quip the other, be it one-upmanship or a lack of scruples.

By the time the end credits roll and Nina Simone’s “Take Care of Business” plays – a great bookend to Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What” which begins the film – the premise of the series is all but cemented with the introduction of Mr. Waverly (Hugh Grant). He is the bridge to a future installment should one ever materialize. Sadly, I fear that it may be a one and done for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. if going by box office receipts. Which is a shame, because unlike the bloated Spectre with its poorly executed revenge plot, this James Bond-lite interpretation is the better alternative. It is cool, hip and entertaining. Yes, the villains are undervalued as is their scheme, but the intended purpose is establishing the relationships of heroes Solo and Kuryakin which Ritchie achieves. Were a sequel to occur one can only imagine what type of ’60s-era diabolical villain Ritchie would create. Might I suggest Idris Elba, who appeared in Ritchie’s RocknRolla back in 2008.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the first Guy Ritchie film to be shot entirely digital. Lensed by British cinematographer John Mathieson, of Gladiator and X-Men: First Class, the film has a nice contrast to the worn and threadbare setting of East and West Berlin when venturing to Rome and the Vinciguerra estate. The color pops even in a chase scene where Solo takes a brief respite to enjoy a snack as Kuryakin is pursued by a boat with machine-gun turrets.

As beautiful as the film looks the audio may be a hair better with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. The track is active and immersive, such as the opening contest between Solo and Kurakin: a destruction derby of screeching tires, gunfire and collisions, and the foot chase that follows. In addition to tracks by Flack, Simone, Louis Prima and Solomon Burke, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. delivers one of the best music scores of 2015. Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs) sticks to a jazzy score mostly and uses musical sounds of the era: a cimbalom (a Hungarian zither), harpsichord, mandolin, electric guitars and bass, plus vintage instruments the Marxophone and Jennings Univox.

The dialogue in U.N.C.L.E. remains clear, despite the accents and languages used. To help audiences through the bits of Italian, German and Russian dialogue, they are translated by yellow subtitles that are variously sized and placed in different portions on the screen. A stylistic touch that will befit the casual viewer that cares not to read subtitles.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. comes packaged as a Blu-ray combo pack release, complete with slipcover and Digital HD code. The special features are sparse as the six featurettes included amount to no more than 35 minutes of bonus content. Spy Vision: Recreating 60’s Cool (8:34) finds Ritchie and Wigram discussing their inspirations in approaching the film; costume designer Joanna Johnston and the cast discuss the wardrobe and locations; and various other crew discuss locations, props and vehicles. A Higher Class of Hero (7:13) shows the challenges met in creating action sequences that don’t look like any other we’ve seen before. Métisse Motorcycles: Proper—and Very British (4:49) is a quick visit with Gerry Lisi, owner Métisse, maker of the “bespoke” motorcycles used in the film. The Guys from U.N.C.L.E. (4:57) is as described – about Cavill and Hammer. A Man of Extraordinary Talents (3:16) is a quick profile on Ritchie. U.N.C.L.E.: On-Set Spy (“Don’t Swim Elegantly,” “You Want to Wrestle?,” “Heli Restored,” “A Family Thing” – 5:16) is four short segments that feature a moment from production that don’t relate to any of the other featurettes. The most interesting development is found in “A Family Thing.”

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a blast to watch if you are looking for a few hours to be coolly entertained. Lovers of the original television series may not be impressed, however. For those on the fence, make the time to check it out. It was sorely overlooked when Warner Bros. opened the film in August, two weeks after Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. What the Blu-ray lacks in supplemental material it makes up for with quality audio and video.

Warner Bros. presents The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. Directed by: Guy Ritchie. Written by: Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris. Running time: 116 Minutes. Rating: PG-13. Released: November 17, 2015.

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