Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.
On occasion when a popular television series is cancelled the fans still clamor for more. It may take a number of years but there are times when the studios will see this as an opportunity and approve new material to continue the story of the original series. In 1964 a series first aired that that transcend just being a popular TV series and become a part of our collective popular culture; ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’. This show came about at just the right time. The early sixties was a period when spies ruled the box office and the air waves. James Bond was king in the theaters and the men from the United Network Command for Law Enforcement held the TV audiences under their sway. There were many limitations in both venues but U.N.C.L.E. remained the top of TV spies. They had those great gadgets similar to the ones that evolved with James Bond. They were dashing, sophisticated and daring and most importantly still loved by the viewers. The original series ran for four years up to 1968 and then quietly faded away from the TV landscape. It would take fifteen years but the spies form U.N.C.L.E. would find a final hurrah with a made for television movie; ‘The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair’. It is a tricky thing for a cast and crew to try to recapture the lightening that made the show such a culturally significant series. It is also a slippery slope for the fans. They want to see the same magic that drew them to the original series but also crave for something new and exciting. So if the writers change too much it is considered heresy but if it stays too close to the original formula the fans will denounce it as a rip off. The reunion movie did try to create such a balance although it was not able to reach for the same degree of entertainment as the series. There were many contributing factors to this. Some fairly major missteps where made with the basic construction of the story combined with the having to live up to the progress the film side of the genre made all worked to keep this made for TV movie from attaining its potential. Many fans have the full season set that was released a little while ago. While this had all the TV episodes it did omit this flick so if you are a U.N.C.L.E. fan who strives for a complete collection this is a must have. The DVD release is handled through CBS Paramount and they have a vault of programming that any fan of television would wish to have entry. This is like a slice of pizza, it may not be great but it is pizza. Even though this is not a great flick it does strike a note of nostalgia that has some meaning for those of us that grew up watching this series.
Any film or television project begins with the person chosen to be the author of the script. With a reunion movie it is vital that the writer have an intimate understanding of the smallest details of the original series. If at all possible the producers try to get the same writers who worked on the series often, as was the case here, they may not be available 15 years after the cancellation of the series. The mantle was passed to a highly successful television writer Michael Sloan. He had made a solid career that spanned a decade at the time of this movie and would continue for current times. Over the years he had created screenplays and produced such series as the new version of ‘The Outer Limits’, the original ‘Battlestar Galactica’ and ‘Quincy M.E.’. He had a firm handle on constructing taut mysteries so the choice for a writer here was a good decision on the part of the studio. One thing that Sloan did to help connect with the fan base was to hire a very proactive U.N.C.L.E. fan, Robert Short, as a technical advisor. No matter what you think of how the end result faired here you have to give Sloan credit for an honest try at providing something that would appeal to the all important fans. In some production notes that I read there was an indication that Sloan prepared for this project by viewing episodes from the third season. There was a major change made in the direction of the series after the first, black and white season. For one it became more of a campy series with a lot of tongue in cheek humor infused into the plots. The first season was more or less straight spy stories and many fans consider them to be the best of the show.
Ray Austin was chosen to direct this reunion movie. This former stunt man had a long line of directorial credits mostly on television that included series like ‘Hawaii Five-O’ and spies shows ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Champions’. Okay, he also did a few episodes of ‘The Love Boat’ but we can’t hold that against him in light of his other credits. Typical of the production of a reunion movie the beloved actors that made the series a hit have either aged or died. The heart of the series was always the head of the organization, Alexander Waverly wonderfully played by veteran actor Leo G. Carroll. He died over a decade before this production so he had to be replaced. A good choice was made when they brought in Patrick Macnee as Sir John Raleigh. Macnee was already well known as the English spy John Steed in the cult hit ‘The Avengers’. It was a delight for all spy television fans to see him in an American production. The original was so tightly tied to its stars that the movie wouldn’t stand a chance if they did not return. Fortunately Robert Vaughn came back as the suave Napoleon Solo and David McCallum returned to reprise his role as the intelligent and cunning Illya Kuryakin. Now this is where the fans felt they were let down. We all wanted to see the two agents working together again but this time out they were separated and paired with younger agents. This precluded the chemistry that the actors brought to the series from being manifested here.
The basic story line is contrived but reasonable. Most of the dreaded enemy organization THRUSH had been dismantled but there are a few operatives still on the loose. When some of them managed to commandeer a nuclear weapon and blackmail the world U.N.C.L.E. has to locate agents that know THRUSH. Since the evil doers have mostly been inactive Sir John has to call back to service the most effective agents U.N.C.L.E. ever to fight THRUSH, Solo and Kuryakin. Solo had left U.N.C.L.E. to become a computer salesman and engage in his love of gambling. He was sentimental and held on to his pen communicator which is reactivated to contact him. Illya left the fast pace spy world behind to become a noted fashion designer. When they enter the new headquarters in New York they notice the brand new computers and other technological advances that have been made in the lat fifteen years.
I remember watching this movie when it was first broadcast and having mixed feelings. I was let down because it wasn’t up to the standards of the series but delighted at seeing some favorite characters I grew up watching back again. This is how you have to take this flick; it is like catching up with old friends at a high school reunion. You all have moved on but it is one last chance to hang out with your friends.