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DVD Review: The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair

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You’ve been in this position before?
“Frequently.
Oh, well, how did you get out of it then?
“I carried an explosive charge in my watch.
Where do you carry it now?
“In my shoe.
What did they change it for?
Progress.

Spies were all the rage back in 1983: while Roger Moore was bumbling through his latest 007 escapade, Octopussy, veteran Bond actor Sean Connery returned to the franchise that made him a household name (and that he had also retired from — twice) in the independently-produced James Bond outing, Never Say Never Again. There was also some sort of a Cold War thing going on at the time, too — but the reports on that are completely unfounded.

Even in the world of a made-for-television movie like The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair, the very essence of all things spydom was alive and kicking — not so much in the form of the much-needed small screen return of U.N.C.L.E. graduates Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, but in the guise of yet another James Bond alumni (the only other one that was around at that point, in fact), George Lazenby. And, while the cameo appearance of a tuxedo-clad, gadget-ridden Aston Martin-driving character of a fellow spy known only as “J.B.” is as close as you can get to it without saying it, The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair somehow managed to (unofficially) merge these two marvels and gave the oft-ignored Lazenby a chance to say “Ha-ha!” — if only for a moment.

Back to the real topic at hand: The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair marked (for fans, at least) the long-awaited reunion of Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (McCallum) in an exciting (by early ’80s television standards) yet decidedly Bond-esque adventure into the perils of a pending nuclear holocaust. Let me set the stage here: the very dear head of U.N.C.L.E. in New York, Alexander Waverly (played in the original The Man From U.N.C.L.E. series by the very dear Leo G. Carroll) has recently passed on. His replacement, Sir John Raleigh (The Avengers star Patrick Macnee — who appeared in another James Bond adventure, A View To A Kill, two years later) has just arrived and is trying to get the hang of things. Unfortunately, Sir John has his hands full on his first day: the ultra-evil conglomerate organization THRUSH has recently reassembled and has just stolen a really huge and deadly neo-nuclear device of gigantically huge epic proportions (does that sink in at all?).

The new THRUSH is comprised of a venerable assortment of familiar faces from TV and film alike: Anthony Zerbe (later in License To Kill) hams it up as the somewhat flamboyant super villain (who comes complete with an ascot; frequent Clint Eastwood co-star Geoffrey Lewis as Janus (a name that nobody is able to pronounce correctly); Swamp Thing actor Dick Durock plays a henchman named Guiedo; John Harkins as Alexi Kemp, whose hair always seems to be bunched up and over to his left side; and the casting director even managed to wrangle up nearly-deceased Keenan Wynn just to look, well, old.

With THRUSH’s ransom demands consisting of delivery by ex-U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo (none of the current U.N.C.L.E. agents have the style or sophistication necessary to save the world, you see), Sir John has no alternative but to reenlist the present-day computer salesman (we first see Solo at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, sporting the frilliest tux this side of Liberace’s wardrobe and acting like he’s a certain British secret agent whose name I will no longer mention). Knowing full well that he’s been out of the game far too long to go at it alone, Solo requests that his former partner Illya join him — which is all fine and dandy except that Illya quit working for U.N.C.L.E. some years back after being betrayed by a double agent by the name of Janus and has no intention of returning (Illya’s present occupation is that of a fashion designer — of course, Illya always did have a way with the women). Of course, as the predictable-but-fun story progresses, Solo and Illya reunite to save the world.

One thing that I had frequently heard from various U.N.C.L.E. fans over the years is that The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair wasn’t all that great — and that the reunion of Solo and Illya was a bit of a letdown in as writer Michael Sloan (who created both The Equalizer and The Master) wrote his script more in vein with the dreaded third season of the cult classic series. Sadly, that is true.

But Sloan’s biggest mistake is that he didn’t pair-up the aging duo with each other and instead joined them with new (younger) characters: Solo treks across the world to Hoover Damn with hotshot U.N.C.L.E. agent Kowalski (Tom Mason), while Illya is teamed with a British actor (Simon Williams) who figures into THRUSH’s plans since he may or may not know how to arm the nuclear device they’ve stolen. Now, despite the aforementioned no-nos, the charm of the original series is still there (as is the show’s heart and humor). In fact, the addition of the new characters (no matter how annoying or trivial they may be) brings a breath of fresh air to the movie.

And then there’s the acting: imagine, if you will, walking into a buffet where nothing but ham is served — roast ham, boiled ham, ham soup, ham salad, and even ham pudding — and you pretty much have The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair. For the most part, the hammy acting is reserved for the bad guys (Anthony Zerbe in particular — as he always seems to do), but the great big special “WTF Television Acting Award Of 1983″ definitely goes out to series star Robert Vaughn, who somehow went from a television Connery in the ’60s to a boob tube Moore in the ’80s (with all due respect aimed at both Moore and Vaughn). I don’t know if it happened in the ’70s or the ’80s, but somewhere along the line, Robert Vaughn stopped acting like Napoleon Solo and started behaving like plain ol’ Robert Vaughn.

At least you can always count on David McCallum to keep his tongue in his cheek (check out NCIS sometime if you doubt me).

CBS/Paramount brings us The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair on DVD via a wonderful transfer that is very clear and crisp looking. Presented in its original standard television aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the TV movie looks like it could have been filmed just recently — and only the fashions, automobiles, hairstyles, music, Las Vegas backgrounds and perhaps even the actors will make one realize that it was not. Sound-wise, The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair is given a glorious English Mono Stereo treatment. No Subtitles are provided (frown) but Closed Captioning is available en Ingles.

In terms of special features, though, the disc lets us down: the only main feature-related bonus bit is a television Trailer (1:45). But, all in all, The Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – The Fifteen Years Later Affair is a fun — if campy — reunion flick.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.