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

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When I was a wee tyke, there was nothing in the world cooler to me than The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And why wouldn’t it be? Week after week, intrepid U.N.C.L.E. operatives Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) saved the world from the nefarious clutches of THRUSH, and they did it with aplomb and style.

Jack Bauer was barely out of diapers when the exploits of Solo and Kuryakin debuted in 1964, the first and only spy series on television at the time. Instrumental in its creation was James Bond creator Ian Fleming, so it’s no surprise that Napoleon Solo had much of that same debonair charm as Bond. In fact, the original premise, as envisioned by Fleming, was titled “Solo.” Producer Sam Rolfe, fleshed out the premise, creating the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, and Solo’s Russian counterpart, Illya Kuryakin. U.N.C.L.E. was a global agency that knew no borders and was beyond ideologies. It had one mission, and that was to thwart the machinations of THRUSH, or the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.

That was pretty heady stuff for me as a little kid. The idea that there was a clandestine organization based in a secret passageway behind a tailor shop somewhere in the upper forties of NYC, operating solely to save humanity from equally shadowy, but infinitely evil, forces fueled my imagination. It wasn’t long before I was a junior U.N.C.L.E. agent, outfitted with my own UNCLE gun and ID badge, saving my little childhood world from evil adults that I knew made their way through secret corridors once they left their day jobs. That is, until I got bored with that game, and took some time to play rock star ala The Monkees or superheroes like the Green Hornet.

As I grew older, my priorities changed, I guess. The closer I got to puberty, the sillier The Man from U.N.C.L.E. seemed to me. It wasn’t just me getting older, though—these were the Swingin’ Sixties, after all, and the series, in its second and third season jumped on the camp bandwagon that the Batman TV series ignited. Halfway through its fourth season, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was cancelled, replaced, fittingly enough, by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.

Still, it’s those childhood memories that we hold most fondly, and that eventually shape us as adults. Solo and Kuryakin inspired me, much like Sherlock Holmes and Batman, to investigate all the angles and be prepared to act with confidence when the situation warrants it. More importantly, though, they taught the importance of looking and being, well, cool. And even at its campiest, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was cool.

That’s why I harbored high hopes for The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair. When it first aired on CBS as a made-for-TV movie, I wasn’t terribly impressed, as I recall. Then again, in the early eighties, I was jaded about pretty much everything on television. Twenty-five years later, the movie fares a bit better on DVD. It’s not that I believe the film is any less asinine than it was when it originally aired, or that it takes on some significance in retrospect. No, it’s much simpler than that. It illustrates, that despite all the technological advances that propel TV stories in 2009, the formulaic storytelling techniques of television haven’t advanced one whit.

The set-up for The Fifteen Years Later Affair is simple enough—THRUSH has hijacked a nuclear weapon that will detonate over a major U.S. city unless a $350 million ransom is paid to them. There’s one other proviso in their demand—the ransom must be delivered by U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo. The problem is, Solo retired from active duty fifteen years earlier. And therein lies the hook. Solo, for unexplained reasons, is retired from the spy business, and now sells computers, theoretically, at least. From what we see, he spends most of his time in Atlantic City casinos, gambling poorly, wearing immaculate tuxedos and rescuing mysterious femme fatales from equally mysterious KGB agents. He’s lost contact with U.N.C.L E., now headed by Sir John Raleigh (Patrick MacNee), after Mr. Waverly’s (Leo G. Carroll) death. Illya Kuryakin is a bit easier to find, since he’s turned his back on espionage in favor of fashion design.

After some plot contrivances that take up half the movie (including a car chase that features George Lazenby—the forgotten Bond—known only as “JB” here—cruising in a rather beat-up Aston Martin DV8), the U.N.C.L.E. duo are eventually reunited, if only briefly. The movie fails in that it loses the interaction between the suave Solo and the introspective Kuryakin. Instead, it sends them on parallel missions to thwart the ransom demand.

The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. was intended to spark interest in reviving the series. Unfortunately executive producer/ writer Michael Sloan watched only a few episodes of the third season of the original series as a basis for his research. The result is a campy version of a Roger Moore James Bond movie (which in themselves were campy.) If the Batman TV series had been a Quinn Martin production, it would probably have looked a lot like this. All those late seventies/early eighties character actors that dominated the small those screen are there—particularly Anthony Zerbe, as the head of THRUSH.

There are some little nudge-nudge jokes here, and some insider references, but the made-for-TV movie falls back on cliches to drive the story. THRUSH grunts wear orange overalls, U.N.C.L.E. agents wear blue. The final assault plays out like a boy’s fantasy wherein good guys never get hurt and the bad guys drop like flies. And that’s the part that reminds me of when I was a ten–year old U.N.C.L.E. operative. This DVD also reminds me of how some childhood fantasies are best left alone. It’s a TV movie, presented in its original format, mono soundtrack and all. The only extra is a trailer—read that “commercial”—promoting the film. And while it’s not the reunion I would have wanted, it was still enough to transport me to a time when when things were simpler.

Even if the bad guys had a nuke pointed at us.

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About Ray Ellis