Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Flawed Approach to Man From UNCLE (2015) or Will They Ever Learn?


About half way through the Warner Bros film “Man from UNCLE”, Illya Kuryakin tries to make the case for a Russian architect having designed and built the Spanish Steps in Rome. It seemed out of place somehow in the movie I was watching, but when the movie was over I realized where this anomaly had come from.

It would seem that the one character trait unique to any of the characters in this film that actually had its origins in the original TV series was this particular running gag. Whenever some invention, or creative work, was part of the story, Illya would always explain how it had actually been composed, or invented, in Russia. This running gag, used once, the names of some of the characters and the title of the movie itself were the only references to the original show to be found in the movie.

You might think that if you were going to bother to do a reboot of a 1960s TV series, that you would want to carefully review and select elements from the original and use them in a reboot, doing a best of, as it were, and make a contemporary entertainment product that properly also captured and moved forward what it was that made the original show notable.

Furthermore, you might choose to do this and do it well not for the sake of creative integrity but for hard core business reasons. The success of your roughly 100M $US investment depends on creating a powerful version of this property, to both get the original viewers, the teenage viewers, and as many of the inbetween that you can. There are models for this sort of thing, where it has been done successfully, and where it has not. And what we learn is that where it has not been done well, the movie has flopped. But when it has been done well, the marketing has been straightforward and the movie has been successful.

The lesson is, do it well or not at all.

The good news is that a certain amount of this can be checked before production begins. You can make use of a time honored but now sadly neglected feature of the traditional cinema which is called “the script”. Yes, you can write a script and have it reviewed by people who know the original, as well as by people who know modern action movies.

Having done this, it is also useful to cast actors who bring the script to life, and for that matter, a director who has a feel for the property. This is your job, I emphasize, your means of making a livelihood, and it is always good to remind the studio executive of their supposed expertise.

So what do we get instead? What we get is a script that ignores UNCLE, has the conceit of being a backstory to the TV show which if that is the plan, they badly fucked it up. It uses none of the anticipation and recognition, setup and payoff, available to them. The actors cast are boring, unlikeable, uninteresting. It is in places beautiful, yes it looks like a yacht advertisement from 1960s Italy, but who the fuck cares? Thats nice and all, and it would be a wonderful touch if they had a script and some actors with passion, but without them it is just a bunch of pretty pictures.

But if every silver lining has a cloud, the reverse is also true, and there is some silver lining here. Because the lead actors are so fucking boring, the women of this piece completely capture the movie. We have exactly two of them, one is a 20 year old who is completely hilarious in a scene where she tries to get Illya drunk, to dance, and to sleep with her. The other is 40 something Italian billionaire and femme fatale who jumps Napoleon Solo and then drugs and tortures him.

Yes, the parody of effete Italian manhood is entertaining, but whats the point?

Almost none of the elements that were notable about UNCLE were in this movie. No NYC tailor shop with a secret door, no THRUSH bad guys, nothing.

Its not enough to say that you are going to reboot a property, you have to actually do it well or you should save your money and make another Die Hard movie or something. As it is, it is all a giant waste of effort, of money and of an opportunity.


1. You may wonder, as I have wondered, what the word THRUSH stands for. If UNCLE stands for United Network Command Law Enforcement, then surely THRUSH stands for something as well. At a Westercon years ago I came across a “bible” for the original UNCLE. A bible is the guide issued to all the writers of a TV series to give them enough background to write, or propose, a story for the series. In it we learn that THRUSH stands for Technical Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjection of Humanity. Well it sounds a little forced to me, but its ok.

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