Watching this reunion train wreck made Judge Jim Thomas cry, "U.N.C.L.E.!"
They've been out of the spy business for fifteen years…Now U.N.C.L.E. wants them back.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ran for three and a half seasons, from 1964-68. The show was envisioned as James Bond lite; in fact, Bond creator Ian Fleming helped develop the series, creating the Napoleon Solo character. The other character Fleming provided, April Dancer, became The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.. The show poked fun at the spy genre, but did so with a gentle touch—initially. It was an instant hit, both in ratings and in merchandising, but a gradual descent into silliness resulted in the 1968 cancellation. In 1983, a reunion movie, Return of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., subtitled "The Fifteen Years Later Affair" to maintain the pattern from the series, hit the airwaves. The prosecution contends that the half-baked script does a grave disservice to the considerable on-screen talent.
Facts of the Case
The diabolical organization THRUSH is up to no good. Its leader, Justin Sepharin, (Anthony Zerbe, Star Trek: Insurrection) has just escaped from prison, and THRUSH has just brought down a B-52 to steal the nuke it was carrying. THRUSH wants $350 million or it'll use the nuke. (Stop me if you've heard this before.) One of the provisions of the blackmail arrangement is that the ransom must be delivered by top U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law Enforcement) agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn, Joe's Apartment). There's only one problem—Solo hung up his U.N.C.L.E. pistol fifteen years ago, as did his partner, Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum, NCIS). Solo claims to be a computer salesman, but seems to spend the bulk of his time gambling, while Kuryakin, who quit U.N.C.L.E. in disgust after a betrayal by an U.N.C.L.E agent resulted in a girl's death, now works as a fashion designer in a top NYC boutique.
These two former compatriots must now reunite to save the world…again.
The original series had a serious case of bipolar disorder. In the first season, when it became a surprise hit, the show had its tongue only slightly in cheek (think Goldfinger); however, by the end of the third season, said tongue was not only firmly in cheek, but had ripped completely through, bursting forth to wave delightedly at the audience, more like A View to a Kill (which is really a camp version of Goldfinger, if you think about it). The audience drifted away during the mad descent, and an attempt to beat the tongue back into submission in the fourth season was so futile that the show was canceled halfway through—staking the tongue through the heart, as it were. Because of those tonal variations, any attempt at a revival should have been written by someone familiar with the show, preferably from the first season. Instead, the producers hired Michael Sloan, with no previous experience with the series. The result is a story that doesn't appear to understand why the show was popular in the first place.
At the heart of the series' success was the interaction between the gregarious Solo and the taciturn Kuryakin. But here, not only does it take almost 40 minutes to reunite the two, but after the reunion they have only a handful of scenes together. Worse still, of that 40 minutes, only 15 minutes really advances the plot. The rest is wasted, including a lame car chase featuring a cameo by George Lazenby as "JB," who rescues Solo from several cars loaded with KGB agents by means of his exceptionally pimped out Aston Martin DB5.
While the idea of the cameo was a nice nod to Ian Fleming, the execution pretty much sucks. Not only does the chase drag out far too long, but Solo is pretty much useless during the entire chase. Solo wouldn't have survived were it not for Bond's—excuse me, JB's intercession, undermining Solo's credibility as a super agent in his own right. His credibility takes another shot in a painful scene in which he is exceedingly slow to realize that the secret entrance to U.N.C.L.E. HQ has been moved.
The script is a mishmash of plot contrivances and coincidences. The story revolves around a stolen atomic bomb and a mad scramble to protect one of the three people who know how to arm the bomb. Now, I don't have a military background, but it seems to me that an atomic bomb is of limited use if it cannot be armed; furthermore, the arming method would need to be fairly simple. "Mr. President, the Soviets have launched a nuclear strike!" "Well, let's get our birds in the air, then." "We can't, sir. The only guy who knows how to arm the bombs is on vacation." "We're pretty much screwed, then. Das vidanya!"
Bond has Q; here, U.N.C.L.E. has Z, thus proving that you can't have a secret agent movie without gadgets. We get some gadgets, but sadly, the U.N.C.L.E. pistol has been relegated to the U.N.C.L.E. wing of the Smithsonian. Again, you don't get rid of what works. Those guns were iconic—based on the Walther P-38, they had all sorts of attachments, including a scope, a silencer, and a stock. Toy versions were a big seller, and you can find more realistic versions still available on the intranet. Sure, it makes sense that U.N.C.L.E. has moved on to a new gun, but we never get a good look at it, and we don't see any attachments. The new gadgets are a touch on the silly side—the ID bracelet that explodes when it gets wet being the most obvious example.
Given the sad state of the script, it's really unfair to address acting, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Dura lex sed lex. Vaughn and McCallum gamely go through the motions, Vaughn suffering through an interminable series of weak old-age jokes made at his expense, but soldiering on, regardless. McCallum in particular seems somewhat disinterested; the brooding intensity that made Kuryakin such a hit notably absent. Anthony Zerbe's vaguely effeminate turn as Justin Sepharim could have been pretty good had he been given better dialogue. Upon meeting Solo in the middle of nowhere to discuss the ransom arrangements, Sepharim comments on the location, "I so wanted our first meeting to be private." And then, ten seconds later: "Napoleon Solo! Well, here we are again." What the hell?!? What is this, Dark Helmet saying, "At last we meet again for the first time for the last time"? But don't pity Zerbe; he does a decent enough job with what he's given. No, the person you should pity is Geoffrey Lewis, playing the former U.N.C.L.E. agent Janus, who is given crappy dialogue and just can't make it work.
The mono audio track is clear and free from noise, which is about the best you can hope for. The video isn't as good—there's a good bit of grain, as well as evidence of some edge enhancement here and there. The only extra is a TV trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
THRUSH's plan for the nuke is really quite ingenious, much more inventive than the traditional "destroy a US city" routine, and there's a pretty interesting plot twist as well. Despite the farcical plot, it was still kind of fun to see the guys from U.N.C.L.E. again, even if they were pale shadows of their former selves.
Your trivia for the day: George Lazenby's scenes were filmed at the same time that both Never Say Never Again and Octopussy were filming, which is probably the only instance of three different actors playing the same character at the same time, in different movies.
Return of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a revival of the series. Perhaps the intervening years have significantly raised the standards for episodic TV, but the court is at a loss to explain how anyone thought this travesty would bring the series back.
Meh. This movie is a clear example of nostalgia not being what it used to be. Guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2009 Jim Thomas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.