My first experience with secret agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin came in the form of several The Man From U.N.C.L.E. paperback novels that I acquired from used book stores as a teenager, shortly after discovering the world of spy fiction courtesy of Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm and Ian Fleming's James Bond novels. The U.N.C.L.E. books – especially those by author David McDaniels – were among my favorites, even if they lacked the steamy sexual content of those Nick Carter Killmaster paperbacks that so appealed to my adolescent prurient interests. Obviously, from those tie-in paperbacks, I knew that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had been a television series back when I was an infant, but it didn't air in syndication in our market, so I never got to see an episode until years later.
In fact, my first viewing of the characters on television was in the 1983 television reunion film, The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. – the Fifteen Years Later Affair, which will be released on DVD by CBS/Paramount Home Video next month. Not knowing any better, I enjoyed the telefilm – I liked pretty much any spy-fi as a teenager (still do) – but it was the chemistry and camaraderie between stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum that really appealed to me. When I finally got to see some original episodes on early morning cable airings as a twenty-something, I discovered that they were much better than that TV movie.
Many years ago, the TV movie was released on VHS tape, and I bought a used copy of it. The picture and sound quality were awful – soft and fuzzy – but I held on to it up until a few months ago, when I transfered it to DVD-R. Of course, only a few weeks later, CBS/Paramount announced the new DVD.
Now, I haven't been able to afford The Man from U.N.CL.E. complete series DVD set from Warners, but thanks to CBS/Paramount, I've now got the reunion movie on legit disc, and it looks much better. Since it was an early 80's TV movie, it's presented full-frame, but the picture quality is pretty decent. Still a little soft, but vastly superior to the old tape.
As to the story, writer/producer Michael Sloan decided to attempt a James Bond-scale plot on a TV budget, and failed pretty miserably. The basic plot rips off Thunderball and has plot elements that, oddly, foreshadow the much-later Bond flick Goldeneye. The story also makes the mistake of spending the first half of the movie getting Solo and Kuriyakin back into their old jobs, then splits them up and sends them off on separate missions.
The cool interior sets of U.N.C.L.E. HQ are long gone, replaced by what looks like cheap rental space that completely lacks the retro-futuristic coolness of the original show, while the over-familiar backlot exteriors of the 60's are replaced with a lot more actual location shooting, mostly in Las Vegas and New York. The direction is plodding and pedestrian, and the music score is horrendous.
On the plus side, the cast is full of familiar faces. Ex-Avengers star Patrick Macnee shows up as the new head of U.N.C.L.E. replacing the late Leo G. Carroll, and his presence is a welcome one, while Anthony Zerbe (Licence To Kill) and Geoffrey Lewis make decent enough villains. James Bond even makes an unauthorized appearance – in the form of On Her Majesty's Secret Service star George Lazenby!
The only extra on the new DVD is a so-called "trailer," which looks like it may have been made for that earlier VHS release. It's a shame, because a commentary track by Vaughn and/or McCallum would have probably been more interesting than the movie. The original TV promos would have been cool to see, too.
It's not a great example of the U.N.C.L.E. franchise, and not even a particularly great reunion flick, since it keeps the main characters un-reunited for most of its running time. Still, I have a fondness for it as it was my first taste of the series, and I'm excited to have a high-quality copy of it in my library.
The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. streets on March 3rd. You can pre-order it from Amazon here.