Turning a '60s television show into a major motion picture is a risky proposition. While it has worked on occasion, like in the cases of The Fugitive or Mission: Impossible, far more often the end result has been a disaster. Bewitched, Dark Shadows, The Green Hornet, Lost in Space, Get Smart… the list goes on and on. Even one of the successes — The Brady Bunch Movie — had to resort to parody to make it work. The spotty track record hasn't stopped studios from developing properties that they already own, mostly because it's a cheap way to get source material. This is how Guy Ritchie's latest movie ended up being a reworking of the nearly forgotten '60s spy show The Man from U.N.C.L.E..
In the original, Robert Vaughn starred as Napoleon Solo (one of the coolest TV character names ever), with NCIS's David McCallum as Illya Kuryakinm, his Russian partner in spying for the international United Network Command for Law Enforcement. At the height of the Cold War, it was a sensational prospect to have agents from the United States and Soviet Union working together to thwart a secret evil organization called THRUST.
Ritchie, however, has experience with making material that could easily be antiquated into something more in tune with a modern audience. After all, he turned Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law into a pair of bare-knuckle brawlers in his Sherlock Holmes films. Who's to say that the British director can't turn Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) and Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger) into a badass version of Solo and Kuryakin? Sure, the fact that both Cavill and Hammer have failed to engage audiences when they've headlined big budget fare should be a concern, but Ritchie was married to Madonna and once had Brad Pitt go an entire movie talking in an unintelligible Irish accent… he's not above taking on a challenge.
The main thing that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has going for it — much like Mission: Impossible — is that espionage really never goes out of style. Deceit, disguises and gadgets make for some handy story building blocks no matter what the set-up is. The trick is almost to ignore much of what came before in the original television show and start from scratch. Reportedly, Ritchie is keeping the story set in the '60s, but hopefully that won't steer his story too rigidly. The best movies based on TV shows, like The Fugitive, make people almost entirely forget where the story came from.
The worst mistake that Ritchie could make would be to try to be too jokey with the material. What comes out of a lot of the television-to-movie projects is that the participants are embarrassed to be doing them and almost feel the need to make fun of their source. Ritchie has proven himself adept at adding touches of humor to his films, usually amidst a steady stream of fights and explosions. For U.N.C.L.E., any jokes need to naturally flow out of the story and action… try to force anything and suddenly the film's either a parody or a pale imitation of the original.
It's an uphill battle to get audiences to care about something that their grandparents watched on television, but Ritchie has more of a chance to pull it off than most. If he can make the 1870s look cool, just think what he can do with London at the beginning of the swinging '60s. Even if Cavill and Hammer haven't yet earned the benefit of the doubt, their director has.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.