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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Review: US nephew, Russian nephew, German niece and the sinister Italian plot

The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Review: US nephew, Russian nephew, German niece and the sinister Italian family plot

It’s not about a man or the man, and the clever acronym for the secret agent network is a clear reference to Uncle Sam, alias the President of the United States of America, even though United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE) is formally created only in the very last shot of the film. Then, again, it is not about Americans only. There’s a Russian KGB man too, and an East German woman, who are given equal footage. That is, until a British intelligence officer reveals the role of the UK secret service, MI6, in the operation, and almost steals the thunder from the two cold war foes-turned-allies. A large part of the action involves former Nazis and takes place in Italy, which, under Fascist dictator Mussolini, joined hands with Hitler’s Germany during World War II. Amidst all this confusion, writer-director Guy Ritchie weaves in some genuine laughs and takes you across a whole half-century of cinematic experiences, the era of James Bond and the short-lived Bond spin-off series (Matt Helm, Flint), the Peter Sellers’ bumbling Jacques Clouseau comedies, the Terence Hill-Bud Spencer funny westerns, and the numerous detective duo films that paired trait opposites to generate comedy in contradiction.

UNCLE began as an NBC TV series and lasted four years, 1964-68. It also spawned eight feature films, some of which I got to see as a teenager at the Metro cinema in Bombay (now Mumbai), distributed and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). They starred Robert Vaughn (see notes below) and David McCallum (Sol Madrid, The Great Escape, blonde mane, black turtlenecks, brooding persona) as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin respectively. Both are in their 80s now, and while Vaughn has done a lot of significant film work in the last 50 years, McCallum remained a TV figure for the greater part of his career. The Turner company and U.N.C.L.E.’s co-creator, British American Norman Felton, had the film rights for a long time, but after Time Warner bought over Turner, the rights came to them. There was talk of remaking/rebooting the series for many years, till Ritchie and Ingram set to work in earnest, in early 2012, shortly before Felton passed away. Now, cut to 1963. 

Thief, trickster and pick-pocket turned CIA agent Napoleon Solo pulls out Gaby Teller, daughter of an alleged Nazi scientist turned United States collaborator Udo, from East Berlin, out-foxing KGB operative Illya Kuryakin. In a toilet meeting, his superior, Saunders, reveals to Solo that Teller’s uncle Rudi works in a shipping company, owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra, a wealthy couple (and Nazi sympathisers), who intend to use Udo to build their own private nuclear weapon, and sell it to the highest bidder. Suddenly, Kuryakin emerges from nowhere and grapples with Solo, getting a strangle-hold on him. Saunders then says that Kuryakin is in the USA on official capacity, to be part of a joint American-Russian covert operation. Solo and Kuryakin are ordered to join forces and head for Italy, to stop the Vinciguerras from succeeding, with both men secretly assigned to steal the weapon’s designs for their respective governments.

Two newcomers--Jeff Kleeman and David C. Wilson--worked with Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram on the story, based on Sam Rolfe’s work on the original TV series. Screenplay credits are shared between Ritchie and Wigram, who also teamed up on Sherlock Holmes.  Wigram says that the film is inspired by “…our love of Sean Connery (James Bond), Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), The Odessa File, all those classic 60’s and 70’s movies, and John le Carré movies. For us, it was our homage, if you like, to those films.” I get the Bond bit, but the others were in a different mould altogether. Bond had humour, more so after Roger Moore took on the role. The others were very serious takes on the business of international espionage.

UNCLE is a parody masquerading as a serious spy thriller. Digging into the genesis of the organisation was a good idea, and this renovated first chapter forms a prequel to a likely franchise. Comedy, of the irony/one-liner/dead-pan/one-upmanship could have been the cornerstone of the narrative. The contradiction is the fact that most comic punches are contrived, or in questionable taste, while the serious spying is rather well-written. Given the ambience of the film, the reverse was to be expected. Toilet humour involving Saunders and Solo, the pawing of Gaby’s upper thighs by Kuryakin to check the working of a concealed transmitter, and lines like “Napoleon? Only my mother calls me Napoleon!” are cases in point. The scenes about agents getting into their new, assignment cover id get-ups, the sarcastic punches about technological bragging by Solo and Kuryakin’s dead-pan trumping are exceptions.

By having Americans, Russians, Germans and Italians in the film, with sub-titles all over, Ritchie adds to the tedium. Agreed that it is a cold war period film, and the Germans and Italians were common enemies of the Americans and Russians in the World War; that does not mean the span has to include all four. One only thanks the writers for not bringing in the French—they too had a government, under Vichy, that allied itself with the Nazis. UNCLE labours in the first half, with tons of walking and talking, literally, and towards the end, the clever climactic punches are wasted away in a few minutes of screen action. Two sets of actions, once earlier and once just before the climax, are explained with imaginative editing technique, once in excised real-time, and once in immediate recap, including the edited-out bits.

British director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Sherlock Holmes-2009, 2011, RocknRolla, Snatch) has a cult following. Moreover, he has two comic-book superhero (Superman, Lone Ranger) superstars playing the lead roles here, not to mention Hugh Grant. No wonder the audience at a mixed press-private screening at Mumbai’s Fun Republic on 24 August laughed out loud at even borderline funny jokes or thrust-at-you funny situations. His tongue-in-cheek rehashing of the Christoph Waltz character from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and having the IB actor Sylvester Groth play the torturer, with an anti-climactic ending, will have you in splits, the directly parodying notwithstanding. Having said that, and seen that, let’s be frank: UNCLE has some shades of it, and yet it is no Sherlock Holmes. Cutting points are often functional rather than by design, Alicia Vikander’s casting is suspect and Jared Harris has little to do. In a clever bit of ‘patriotism’, Ritchie puts the American and Russian, as well as the East German, under the command of British MI6!

Tom Cruise was to play Solo, and the film was earlier to be helmed by a different director. Henry Cavill (Immortals, The Tudors, Cold Light of Day, Man of Steel) is his replacement and Illya Kuryakin is Armie Hammer (Lone Ranger, The Social Network). Both pass muster, scoring in the action and dead-pan parts. When called upon to put across some tame humour, the effort shows. Hugh Grant, reportedly not an easy actor to sign and to work with, is effortless as the MI6 man Waverly, and enjoys himself in his smallish role. Elizabeth Debicki (6’2”, born in Paris, with Polish and Australian roots, seen in The Great Gatsby) is in her element as Victoria, cunning and ruthless. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina) speaks with a voice so hoarse that it is way past being seductive and betrays a medical condition. Considering the sexual innuendos she is involved in, a more voluptuous actress would have been more appropriate. Yes, she is active and energetic.

Jared Harris (Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes) as Saunders seems to be taking sadistic pleasure in delivering the toilet puns, but that was the only way they would have made any impact. As Victoria’s husband Alexander, Luca Calvani looks the racing maniac and brawny playboy he is cast as. Christian Berkel as Udo Teller, Gaby’s father, hams in tandem with Vikander. And yes, another word about Sylvester Groth as Uncle Rudi, the torturer. The German actor is also a singer, a tenor, and his film appearances include Generation War. He has the basic facial structure of Jack Nicholson, and I guess Ritchie could not resist modelling him as such.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is likely to charm Guy Ritchie’s ‘nephews and nieces’. Other relatives in the audience might find it relatively less charming than Ritchie’s own Uncle Holmes.

Rating: **1/2



*Robert Vaughn was nominated for an Academy Award in 1960 for his supporting role as an alcoholic war veteran in The Young Philadelphians. That same year, he completed his master’s degree in performing arts. He also starred in the hit film The Magnificent Seven. While working on U.N.C.L.E., he attended night school and earned his Ph.D. in communications from the University of Southern California, in 1972. His films include The Towering Inferno, The Delta Force, The Ten Commandments and Bullitt. In an interesting twist, Robert Vaughn played the villainous Ross Webster, in 1983’s Superman III, the same year Henry Cavill was born. Henry Cavill is now 32. Robert Vaughn was 32 when he first played Solo.

*Sam Rolfe died in 1993, aged 69. He was a writer, creator, and producer. Rolfe developed the U.N.C.L.E. series from ideas suggested by Norman Felton (died 2012, aged 99) and Ian Fleming. He also wrote episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. His own favourite from the TV series was the pilot, called The Vulcan Affair, a 70-minute version which never went on air. It was re-edited and released as the first UNCLE film, and titled To Trap a Spy.

*Due to serious issues of transport in getting to the venue, I missed the first few minutes of the film. This can happen on some occasions, in spite of every effort to reach on time, considering Mumbai’s population and roadways system. My apologies, nevertheless.

*At the show, the images were often slightly blurred. I am not commenting on this fact, giving the projection due leeway for a possible, temporary, technical glitch.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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