Friday, February 6, 2009

RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.CL.E.

From 1964-1968, two agents of the United Network Command For Law and Enforcement – Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryikan (David McCallum) – fought the evil forces of THRUSH in a weekly struggle to protect the freedoms of, well, the free world.

That television series, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., was a tongue-in-cheek spy adventure that offered Sixties spy fans a weekly fix of intrigue. In 1983, the stars were brought back for this disappointing reunion telefilm, THE RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.: THE FIFTEEN YEARS LATER AFFAIR. Don’t get me wrong – Vaughn and McCallum may have been grayer and a little slower, but their charm remained undiminished. What really hurts the movie is that it fails to capture the unique flavor of the original series and keeps the stars separated for most of its running time.

Writer/producer Michael Sloan decided to attempt a James Bond-scale plot on an 80's TV budget, and failed pretty miserably. The basic story rips off THUNDERBALL and has plot elements that, oddly, foreshadow the much-later Bond flick GOLDENEYE. The story also makes the mistake of spending the first half of the movie getting Solo and Kuriyakin back into their old jobs, then splits them up and sends them off on separate missions.

The cool interior sets of the old U.N.C.L.E. HQ are long gone, replaced by what looks like cheap rental space that completely lacks the retro-futuristic coolness of the original show, while the over-familiar backlot exteriors of the 60's are replaced with a lot more actual location shooting, mostly in Las Vegas and New York. The direction is plodding and pedestrian, and the music score is horrendous.

On the plus side, the cast is full of familiar spy cinema faces. Ex-AVENGERS star Patrick Macnee shows up as the new head of U.N.C.L.E. replacing the late Leo G. Carroll, and his presence is a welcome one, while Anthony Zerbe (LICENCE TO KILL) and Geoffrey Lewis make decent enough villains. James Bond even makes an unauthorized appearance – in the form of ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE star George Lazenby!

Still, for fans of the series and U.N.C.L.E. completists, it’s good to have the TV movie available on DVD. CBS/Paramount’s disc presents the film in a nice, full-frame 1.33:1 transfer. The only extra is a so-called "trailer," but I have no idea where it’s from. It doesn’t look like a network TV promo, and it’s pretty badly cut together. Too bad the studio didn’t spring for a commentary – both Vaughn and McCallum are still with us and working, and I suspect that their reminisces would be more entertaining than the film.

As I said: recommended for fans and U.N.C.L.E. completists only (of which, I am both).

BUY: Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair