3 Stars — Challenging
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a summertime popcorn movie with a farcical plot and tongue-in-cheek dialogue.
Adapted from the hit TV show of the same name that aired on NBC from 1964 to 1968, the story pairs an American and a Russian spy to stop other evil empires in the world. Like James Bond, they have the authority to use whatever means are necessary to protect the American and/or Russian way of life.
The original TV series followed the lives of secret agents, played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, who work for a secret international counter espionage and law enforcement agency called U.N.C.L.E. (an acronym for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement).
It may be interesting to note that the series turned a young McCallum, playing Russian spy Illya Kuryakin, into a sex symbol. Today, at 82, McCallum is best known for starring in the CBS television series NCIS as Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, the team’s chief medical examiner and one of the show’s most popular characters. (In one recent episode, NCIS agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is asked, “What did Ducky look like when he was younger?” Gibbs replies, “Illya Kuryakin.”)
In this shiny new version, American spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) team up with two other spies: another Russian agent named Gaby (Alicia Vikander), who it turns out is really a British agent, and her British boss, Waverly (Hugh Grant).
Still set in the 1960s, their job is to stop the transport and sale of a nuclear warhead to remnants of the old guard that had been sympathetic to the Nazis while residing in Fascist Italy.
The story line is predictable but quite entertaining. Life in the ’60s was a little more secretive without the Internet, but the consequences and fears of nuclear annihilation was a constant sobering reality for everyone.
While the man (or men and women) from U.N.C.L.E. are trying to stop people of evil intent, their comedic personas don’t remove the age-old question of when is violence justified or condoned.
This isn’t about the atrocities of war or holding people accountable for their actions in a Nuremberg trial afterward. This is about what the CIA does today, namely making choices about who lives and dies without a trial.
Is it a necessary evil to prevent a greater one? Or, is this a question most people would rather not answer?
It is obvious from the writing and entertainment production value of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that this will become another series of who-done-it films. Whether you like the film will probably depend on your tolerance for moral ambiguity.
» By their topic, spy movies bring up the moral question of whether a government has the right to give an agent permission to kill. Since a greater evil is stopped by the assassinations, are these killings just, or is each life taken simply murder? Why do you answer as you do?
» Do you believe making a comedy about spies is in itself a way to lessen the moral concern about what spies do or it is just harmless fun — a popcorn film?
» The bumbling effectiveness of agent Solo has become iconic. Do you think a lot of your own success is due to luck?
— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.