The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

I love 1960s spy stuff. James Bond was born in the sixties, Patrick Magoohan was Danger Man, Johnny Rivers killed it with his spy themed “Secret Agent Man” and Mel Brooks spoofed it with “Get Smart”. Even before I’d seen my first Bond film, I saw “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” on television. When I heard that a movie version was planned, I was relatively pleased. I know there are people who hate the idea of a classic show being adapted for movie screens. The list of failures is long: “Lost in Space”, McHale’s Navy”, “The Flintstones”. Video bins are littered with 60s shows re-imagined as big screen entertainment. The hope is that you will get an occasional “Addams Family” or “The Fugitive”, the reality is you end up with “Sgt. Bilko”. So, which way did it go with the latest effort to rob our childhoods to feed our adult addictions?

The movie version of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” gets a lot of things right. It also leaves out some of the things that you treasured. In the end, it works as a stand alone concept because the only things that really remain from the show, are the concept and time period. By sticking to the time period of the original series, the Cold War years of the 1960s, the film manages to keep the tension between East and West as a background. More importantly, they get to costume the leads in stylish 60s garb. One of my favorite things about Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” was the way he captured the vibe of the early 60s. I have not watched a minute of “Mad Men”, but I suspect this movie would do the set decoration and costuming on that series proud. Henry Cavill, who plays the Napoleon Solo character, is dressed in stylish suits in every scene. The fabrics are vivid and the cut flattering. Although they would look a bit old fashioned now, they would carry a lot of retro cache with them.¬† Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin is not wearing the high turtleneck sweater that was practically a trademark of the character, but the Henley styled shirts and plain suits he does wear are perfectly appropriate. The women are the ones who get shown off to the greatest advantage with some mod evening wear from the villainess. The girl that helps the two spies out (a standard storyline from the 60s show) has some cute 60s outfits that would be snapped up in an instant by hipster thrift store shoppers.

The plot really feels like it could be taken from a lost episode of the show. An East German girl is being used by the spy network, to locate her missing father, a nuclear genius who has technology that gives it’s owners great powers. A loose band of Nazi sympathizers have the Doctor captive and are using his knowledge to gain power and build bombs. Most superhero franchises start with origin stories, and this film does the same thing. It attempts to explain how Russian and American spies, begin working together. The TV show never bothered with such background, it simply presented the covert network as a functioning entity from the beginning and then focused on the case for that week. Creating a background story for the agency is the biggest add by Guy Richie and his collaborators. The problem is that it leaves out stuff that made the original series cool, at least to us old enough to remember it. The badges, secret entrance to headquarters, briefings by Mr. Waverly, and the communication gadgets are all missing from the movie. Solo is given a backstory that makes him more Alexander Monday than James Bond. Someone decided that Ilya needed psychological problems to balance out his perfect physical capabilities. The changes work for a big screen adaption but they do distance the audience that might have been drawn in to the film by their love of the series.

Some of the things that work well in this film include the opening section where the Russian spy Illya Kuryakin is chasing after the American spy Napoleon Solo. The car chase and running gun fight are worthy stunts for an opening to a spy thriller. The banter between the two spies is also one of the things that Guy Richie brings to the movie. Anyone seeing his London based crime thrillers knows that snappy dialogue and quick exchanges are trademarks of his work. Hammer does not get quite as many of these lines as Cavill does, but he does get a lot of the physical reaction shots that make a joke pay off. Alicia Vikander is in her third film of the year with this movie. I thought she was great in both “Seventh Son” and “Ex Machina” , the later of which she should always flaunt on her resume. She does not get to do a lot of action material in this movie, but she is definitely more than just the damsel in distress. Hugh Grant is in the film but very little. if there is another in the franchise I know his role will be expanded. The split screen effect used during the storming of the island fortress was an efficient way to get through what might have been a long sequence very effectively, I could do with less shaky cam in the pursuit that follows.

One mistake that I think the film makers make is that they don’t use the original Jerry Goldsmith music effectively. Take a look at how the “Mission Impossible” series has managed to weave the iconic song into those films. They may owe half their box office take to Lalo Schiffrin. The U.N.C.L.E. theme is in the film but only as an exit instrumental rather than as a transition piece. It has been altered from a big horned, bass heavy theme into a nearly unrecognizable conga tune. The result was one of the least satisfying parts of the film. Overall, I enjoyed the film a lot, but there are things to fix to make it as much fun as it should have been. If Guy Richie and his writing partners want some advise for the sequel, they can reach me on channel D.

3 Days to Kill

After yesterdays orgy of films in the Best Picture Showcase, it was time for a little palate cleaning with a new release that won’t be nominated for anything next year. That does not mean that it is worthless but it does mean that this movie is designed only to be consumed and disposed of like the popcorn you should be overdosing on while it plays out in front of you. Kevin Costner has always been a favorite of mine, and although he has gone out of vogue a bit, he appears to be enjoying a renaissance. This is the second of three movies that he has out in the first four months of the year and the second one where he is playing spy games.

When the movie starts you might be tempted to laugh immediately. Two of the characters that the CIA is going after are codenamed “The Wolf” and “The Albino”. I expected Clint Eastwood to show up and he and Costner to scale a mountain in the alps. This just sounded like stereotypically cliched writing from a 1970s spy film. When Amber Heard show up repeatedly in black leather or latex, like some dominatrix that walked in out of a Roger Moore 007 outing, it was even more embarrassing. I began to wonder if people had lost any sense of reality and what century we are in. There is an effective shoot out to begin the movie, but the exterior of the hotel did make it look like an abandoned area of Serbia, which given the technical credits would not be surprising.

As it turns out, the film is a bit of a comedy spy film. They try to play most of the explosions, chases and shootouts straight, but every now and then, Costner’s character makes contact with an opposition counterpart and a relationship begins to form. It is a little one sided but it works to make this a different kind of movie. The character of Ethan Renner is motivated by a different type of ticking clock and it is not just the bad guys he has to tangle with. He is trying to reconnect with his daughter Zoey, played by Hailee Steinfeld, from the “True Grit” remake back in 2010. She is a little older now and works well as the antipathetic and somewhat estranged child of a spy. It turns out that the nut does not fall far from the tree when it comes to the truth department.

The most satisfying element of the film takes place when our hardened spy takes on punks that are in over their depth. Four young men on the brink of drug induced date rape get the sort of ass kicking that every father would like to inflict on someone who dares to even look sideways at his princess. He suckers some professionals with a doorstop and simply displays a gun as a way of coping with some bouncer types at an underground rave. The laws of France appear to be a little to liberated from my point of view when it comes to your personal property, but Ethan manages to negotiate a sticky situation with his apartment in a manner that lets us know that even though he is a bad ass, he is not really a bad man.

Three or four times in the story, a convenient kryptonite moment shows up to make a conventional action scene a little more unique. It was actually annoying the last time it was used and it only exists there to give Amber Heard’s character one more thing to do during the story. The plot elements building a bond between father and daughter don’t go to the extremes of having her put in personal jeopardy by the villain, that was a change that I appreciated. The romantic interludes between attractive but older actors are told without the graphics that would turn younger viewers off, and the settings in Paris, make the film feel a little more familiar but still with an exotic locale. No one will remember this for long but it is enjoyable for as long as you sit in the theater.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I will admit up front that I have never read a Tom Clancy novel. They were ubiquitous accessories in the times that I lived through. Almost everyone I knew carried a copy of one of the Jack Ryan books and thumbed through them at bus stops, in waiting areas of restaurants, any place where time was to be passed and long before the internet was available for us to kill that time with. Next to Stephen King, Clancy defined the world of popular fiction in the 1980s and 90s. When the first incarnation of Ryan arrived on screen in the form of “The Hunt for Red October” I was sold. This was a different kind of spy game and I thought the films did a good job making the stories work on screen. Jack Ryan was played over a twelve year period by three different actors and all of those movies worked to some degree or other. It has been twelve years now since this character was on screen and the reboot seems like it should work and we can look forward to some more of Dr. Ryan over the next dozen years.

It looks as though this is an original story rather than an adaptation of one of Clancy’s works. The update, getting Ryan involved through a 9/11 epiphany seems completely realistic for the times. In the long run it may date the movie, but I still can watch “Red October” even though the Soviet Union is long¬† gone so maybe it won’t matter. The helicopter accident that was mentioned in the 1990s films, becomes a part of an origins story for this movie. I liked the concept but the rapid time forward makes the focus less about Ryan and his character and more about the “evil plan” of the the moment. It is a convoluted attack on America, involving short selling of American bonds and a coordinated terror attack. It is fortuitous that the Russians have themselves rebooted to their cryptic and totalitarian ways. The current intransigence of Moscow makes this script a lot more believable in a time when most terror threats originate from the Islamic world of fundamentalist warriors.

Chris Pine is an up and coming star. He has a great look and he is capable of acting so if given a chance, the character may be sustainable for a period of time. The script here gives him some early opportunities to show us his chops, but once the plot kicks in, mostly it is action based yelling and jumping that will characterize his role. His best moments are trading lines with director and co-star Kenneth Brannagh. Each of their scenes together gives Pine an opportunity to play smart and to use body language and dialogue to tell the story. When we arrive at the climax of the attack, there is basically nothing to distinguish Ryan from all the other hard guy spies that we have seen in other movies. The motorcycle chase near the end makes very little sense except it keeps the star in the center of the action.

The director’s greatest asset in my opinion is himself when playing the role of actor. Sometimes in a story like this, we are given a bad guy who has legendary skills but those are only talked about rather than displayed. Except for a perfunctory introduction to us as a bad ass character who kicks the crap out of a sloppy nurse, all of Brannagh’s work here shows us his intelligence and dangerousness with skilled acting. Brannagh holds the screen with his face and his voice. He barely smiles even when it might be the right way to play off the covert agents he is up against. The traditional Russian accent is authentic enough without being reduced to a caricature of Boris Badenov. You can see menace and intelligence in his eyes. The script gives him a superfluous disease that is used only for a character point for Kiera Knightley’s doctor to notice. His calm delivery of the dialogue involving the simple torture he plans for his captive is more disturbing because we are listening to a serious character and not just a bogey man.

Knightley is fine as Ryan’s future wife, and the best joke in the film involves her discovery of his true job. Kevin Costner is solid in the role of recruiter and operator for the spying activities of the young Jack Ryan. He could easily have been cast in the role himself back in 1990. Had that happened it’s likely that instead of two relaunches of the character, we would now be seeing some of the more mature Ryan stories that feature him in a position of political power. You can’t rewrite history, so we will never know how things might have gone differently. “Shadow Recruit” is an effective action spy thriller, but it is not particularly special. The best thing about it is the performance from Kenneth Brannagh, but there is plenty of potential for long range development of the character, with some stronger plots. Generic but entertaining.