Yet another classic/cult TV series gets the big screen treatment and I'm assuming there is some hope that it may have legs enough to offer competition to the 007, Bourne, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchises. There's a lot of love and nostalgia for THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., 1960's TV's most direct answer to the era's massively popular James Bond boom, but I honestly wonder how much of that love is bolstered by memories dating back by as much as five decades. I sat through the show's entire run about a year and a half ago and I can honestly say that the first two seasons offered fun and intentionally tongue-in-cheek spy shenanigans before the series ill-advisedly dove headfirst into over-the-top brain-dead camp in the wake of the ratings juggernaut that was Adam West's iconic BATMAN program. The show became truly dreadful and downright embarrassing to watch, and a shift to a back-to-basics tone for its truncated final season proved to be not enough to stave off cancellation. Depending on where you lived, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. may or may not have played in syndicated reruns, though some of the foreign-released theatrical "films" cobbled together from episodes did occasionally turn up on local TV as filler in assorted movie showcase slots. In other words, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was a show whose rep was bolstered mostly by nostalgia and not by rerun ubiquity, so it was in many ways more big screen reboot-ready than many of the more familiar television mainstays that made the leap from the small screen over the past three decades of Hollywood mining the glass teat for ideas.
To be fair, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. movie was a lot better than I expected and the fact that it was set in 1963 added to its charm. As this is a spy movie with the usual twists, turns, and surprises in its plot, I won't give away any of the details, other than to say that womanizing CIA spook Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) remained pretty much the same character we've known since 1964 (though with a skill set cribbed from IT TAKES A THIEF's Alexander Mundy), while quiet intellectual KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is needlessly reinvented with borderline-psycho anger management issues. Nontheless, the strength of the film relies on the interplay between Solo and Kuryakin in what would otherwise be a slightly-better-realized-than-average yet generic Cold War-era spy adventure. The biggest drawback is that the filmmakers unnecessarily decided to give the men from U.N.C.L.E. an origin story that shows how they met and overcame their immediate dislike of one another. The TV series simply dropped us headfirst into their world with them already established as top international operatives, and we were trusted to be smart enough to keep up. Lastly, the show's main hook, the dropping of an innocent civilian into the shadow world of international espionage that exists hidden within our mundane world and seeing how they fare when involved with Solo and Kuryakin, is totally absent here.
BOTTOM LINE: A fun way to fill two hours but you can wait for cable. And for those who care, the classic U.N.C.L.E. theme tune — the Hugo Montengro soundtrack album version — is only heard in a three-second snippet as Solo searches for something to listen to on a truck's radio.