Getting home last night, I was feeling pretty peeved. As it was past eleven and my partner was already settled down in bed, this probably wasn’t a great state to be in. I’m sure the last thing she needed was me ranting at the side of the bed.
So what had brought my irritation on? The Man From UNCLE.
Believe it or not, I’m too young to have seen the TV series when it was first aired. But I do remember seeing re-runs and the movie versions in the 1970s. As a boy, I lapped up the excitement and adventure in the same way I did watching The Saint, The Avengers and James Bond.
It’s been a while since I last saw The Man From UNCLE , so I’m sure my memories are fragmented and imbued with a rosy tint. That was certainly the case when I watched old episodes of The Avengers recently. But there were certain characteristics of the franchise very familiar to fans.
Without exception, none of these were present in the new movie. In fact, the only similarities were the names of the key characters. From that point of view, I’d have enjoyed the film more with a completely different title and if there’d been no Napoleon Solo or Illya Kuryakin.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’re going to make a movie based on an old TV series you are, by default, appealing to the fans. But what the fans want is to see more of the stuff they saw in the past. Of course, you need to freshen things up a bit (frankly, you wouldn’t get away with some of the storylines from ‘60s TV shows these days), but you still need to feed the nostalgia.
Funnily enough, the week before I’d been to see Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and that was brilliant. Probably not a lot of plot, but all the elements were there to make an exciting film, with enough nods to the original to pander to us nostalgia freaks.
To be fair, the Mission Impossible films haven’t always worked for me, but that’s been down to the style of filming rather than a lack of appeal to the nostalgic in me. But in the main they’ve worked, so I wondered last night why MI worked and UNCLE didn’t. After all, at least the main characters were still in place for UNCLE.
Spoiler alert for the few who haven’t seen the first MI film. If you don’t want to know a key plot point, stop reading now.
The character most associated with MI is Jim Phelps, and he appeared in the first movie. But in a neat twist he became the bad guy. This was a master stroke. It made seeing a different actor playing the part more palatable, whilst allowing the introduction of a new main character.
More importantly, the films retained core elements of the series – the lit fuse, self-destructing messages, ingenious masks, breaking into impregnable vaults (the impossible bit) or the instantly recognisable theme music.
So MI brought the concept up to date, whilst pandering to the nostalgics who love to be reminded of our childhood.
UNCLE, on the other hand, missed everything that I loved about it. Henry Cavill’s Solo lacked the easy amiability Robert Vaughn brought to the part. Armie Hammer played Kuryakin as a giant blunt instrument with feelings, while David McCallum’s version had an underplayed sensitivity, but was also more of a geek. There weren’t even the little references that would tickle the old fans’ fancies – no tailor’s shop fronting UNCLE HQ, no THRUSH, no “Open Channel D”. They didn’t even use the theme music.
I appreciate you’ve got to bring the thing up to date, so it’ll appeal to current audiences. I also recognise that, because of the way the film ended, it’s intended as background to show the formation of the United Network Command for Law Enforcement (just in case you weren’t sure). For that reason, UNCLE wasn’t even mentioned until the closing lines of the film. Even so, the producers needed to give us something familiar to latch on to, otherwise they may as well have just started a new franchise altogether.
To be fair, UNCLE isn’t the first such film to miss the point. The aforementioned Avengers (John Steed and Emma Peel, not Tony Stark and cronies) was a complete disaster, as was the Val Kilmer version of The Saint. In the case of The Avengers, the whole concept worked in the ‘60s but just doesn’t fit make sense in any other era. The Saint really just missed the whole point, abandoning Leslie Charteris’ vision and that of any previous film and TV adaptations.
I know you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Hell, I know from my experience with Ravens Gathering that some people love it, some hate it. So I realise my comments simply reflect my opinion. I also appreciate that bringing an old franchise back means walking a fine line to get it right. But personally I think anyone trying to do the same thing in the future should look at what went right for Mission Impossible and, by the same token, Doctor Who. Change it by all means, but keep well-loved key elements.
So, because it wasn’t included, I’ll close with something that might bring back memories. If it doesn’t, and you’ve seen the new movie, just think how much better it would have been with something like this as a soundtrack…