DVD Review: Return Of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair (1983)
Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair isn’t a particularly good reunion movie. It’s full of very standard-issue 80s made-for-TV sub-James Bond spy antics. The show and the characters certainly deserved better. I recognize all of that. So why, then, did I enjoy it? That’s easy to answer. 1) It is a reunion movie, and reunion movies by their very nature are fun, even though they’re rarely good. I’m automatically attracted to them, and generally go into them with a lot of good will thanks to my love of the original show. Just watching Robert Vaughn and David McCallum together again on screen brought a smile to my face–even if a terrible, aggressively generic 80s synth score sometimes threatened to take it away. 2) Um, I happen to like standard-issue 80s made-for-TV sub-James Bond spy antics! (Despite their generally aggressively generic 80s synth scores.)
None of the creative forces behind the original Man From U.N.C.L.E. series worked on this CBS TV movie (although Avengers vet Ray Austin directed), and it certainly shows. Instead of some of the more original plotlines the series delivered, we’re treated to a recycled Thunderball nuclear blackmail plot–which must have seemed particularly tired in 1983, the year that Thunderball itself was remade as Never Say Never Again! THRUSH, after apparently being dormant for a decade and a half, has emerged anew to steal an A-Bomb. (They do it over desert instead of water.) Now they want to hold U.N.C.L.E. and the United States at ransom. Actually, the Bond plot (hackneyed though it may be by this point) seems kind of appropriate, as the show’s producers treat this reunion movie as more of a general celebration of Sixties secret agents than U.N.C.L.E. in particular. And, as an avowed admirer of many Sixties secret agents, that’s fine by me.
Patrick Macnee shows up not as John Steed, but as new U.N.C.L.E. boss Sir John Raleigh, just taking the reins from the recently deceased Mr. Waverly. And the producers make the most of what was probably just a single day’s shooting with George Lazenby as James Bond. Oh, I’m sorry! I suppose I should say "JB." That’s how he’s credited (prominently)–and that’s what his license plate says. (Smooth, 007!) But from the moment his character shows up to aid Napoleon Solo in his familiar Silverbirch Aston Martin DB5, the movie forgets about Solo altogether and becomes a low-budget James Bond movie for a few minutes. Lazenby gets all the iconic Bond moments he was denied in his single official outing. He gets to drive a fully equipped DB5, participate in a gadget-laden chase (front-mounted rockets; rear-mounted water sprayers) and wear a white dinner jacket. He even gets to awkwardly cram in the line, "Shaken, not stirred" without ever leaving his car. And just in case we don’t get the reference, Gayle Hunnicutt (riding shotgun in Solo’s car) utters the words "On Her Majesty’s Secret Service." So there’s more to celebrate here than just The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (One suspects that writer Michael Sloan may have been more familiar with Bond than U.N.C.L.E. anyway, and just assumed they were exactly the same.) In what I like to think is another clever reference–but might in fact be just a happy accident–Lazenby drives past an orange Mach 1 Mustang fastback on the Vegas strip–the same car that Connery drove in that location in Diamonds Are Forever.
Anyway, getting back to the story, the first U.N.C.L.E. man on hand when the bomb goes missing is young 1980s hotshot Benjamin Kowalski. (See what happens when you don’t have Ian Fleming on hand to name your main characters, as he was for U.N.C.L.E. producers back in the 1960s?) Kowalski is rather transparent as a potential lead in a new U.N.C.L.E. series–and it’s just as well that didn’t happen because he lacks all the charm and charisma of the original series’ leads–as the villain of the piece is quick to point out! Kowalski shows initiative by interrogating former THRUSH agent Anthony Zerbe in a prison, and Zerbe takes him to task for his lack of style. He doesn’t like the new breed of U.N.C.L.E. agent, and tells him that Napoleon Solo would have asked the same questions, but with more panache–and Ilya Kuryakin would have chilled his blood without saying a word. One can’t help but agree–and hunger for the movie to move on to their promised return!
Zerbe, of course, is perfect, as he always is in these roles. The only problem is that he’s playing someone with a history with Solo and Kuryakin (and a serious ax to grind with Solo)... so why cast one of the few ubiquitous Sixties guest stars who wasn't on the original series? It would have definitely been cooler if they’d gone with one of the actual masterminds Solo tackled with on the show. (What about Anne Francis? That would have been something!) No sooner is Kowalski done questioning him than Zerbe is busted out in a classic 80s TV prison break: a Hughes 500 helicopter buzzes into the rec yard and he clings to the runner.
Back at U.N.C.L.E., Sir John is having a bad first day. A ransom demand has turned up, and part of the demand is that it must be delivered by ex-U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo. "Who is this guy?" asks Kowalski, incredulous, which naturally cues a reintroduction to the noticeably older but still undeniably suave Robert Vaughn. Once again exposing the writer’s preferences, Vaughn’s first shot is an homage to 007's introduction in Dr. No rather than a nod to any classic U.N.C.L.E. moment: he’s wearing a tux (even though he’s in gaudy Las Vegas, not an upscale London club) and playing poker.
"Care to raise your bet, Mr....?" inquires his opponent. Of course, we know who it is: Solo. Napoleon Solo. In a frilly tux. I know it’s supposed to be cool, but I kind of hate the notion that a retired Napoleon Solo would hang out in Vegas like every other retiree! It would have been classier to put him in Monte Carlo. Oh well. The movie makes up for that with a great nod to the original series, the sort that I imagine brought tears to the eyes of men who’d grown up on U.N.C.L.E. when it originally aired. When all attempts to reach Solo have failed, Macnee gets a thoughtful look and says, "I wonder... try Channel D" as he handles some familiar old technology. The message goes through, and Napoleon (who’s apparently hung onto his pen radio for sentimental reasons) gets it in the back room at Caesar’s Palace where he excuses the alarm as being a new battery in his pacemaker. (Come on; he’s not that old!) It’s great to see Napoleon Solo talking on the old communicator again–and just as awesome to see John Steed using U.N.C.L.E. technology!
Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. works best when alluding directly to the classic series, and there’s a humorous (if overlong) scene where Solo tries to enter U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters through the old entrance from Del Floria’s Tailor Shop. Needless to say, the new owner thinks he’s crazy.
But where’s Ilya Kuryakin? For some reason, Napoleon and Ilya haven’t kept in touch since leaving U.N.C.L.E. as soon as the show ended, fifteen years prior. This seems odd to me. Raleigh informs Napoleon that Ilya left under a cloud: he was betrayed, and a woman died. None of that seems very U.N.C.L.E., but it doesn’t matter too much because Napoleon tracks him down soon enough anyway. Ilya’s become a fashion designer. Napoleon catches up with him in a restaurant, but the KGB catch up with Napoleon at the same time, mad about a ballerina he helped defect (Hunnicutt, familiar from multiple incarnations of The Saint, among other things). Ilya helps out his old partner in a predictable fight punctuated by some lame comedy. It then takes Napoleon a surprising amount of coaxing to lure Ilya back into the fray, but he succeeds eventually. "For the sake of the world."
"Don’t throw the world at me," counters Ilya, incredulous. "How many times did we save it?"
"Constantly, as I recall," says Napoleon. And it needs saving again, so the pair reunite long enough for a quick tour of headquarters ("What happened to all the beautiful women who used to work at U.N.C.L.E.?" wonders Ilya) and a trip to Q Branch. (I did mention that Return owes more to Bond than U.N.C.L.E., didn’t I?) A bespectacled female Q named Z runs this low-rent lab, and she owes a lot to John Gardner’s slightly embarrassing "Q’ute" character from his Bond continuation novels of the time. She gives them grenade bullets and new guns (the old ones are in the Smithsonian now, much to Napoleon’s regret) and sends them on their way. Halfway through the running time of their reunion movie, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakan are finally reunited on a mission... only to split up for the remainder of the movie. In the script’s biggest mistake, each of them is paired with a potential new lead (for the new series that never materialized out of this backdoor pilot) instead of with each other.
It seems strange that the original men from U.N.C.L.E. have been retired all this time, when they’re still perfectly capable agents. It’s also strange, and not very much in keeping with the original show, that Ilya left the service in utter disillusionment. But those conceits allow for the expected reunion, however brief it turns out to be. David McCallum still looks great, but the years have been less kind to Robert Vaughn. Somehow, he manages to have aged more than all the other Sixties spies surrounding him, including Lazenby and Macnee–and also including Sean Connery and Roger Moore, both of whom were still capering around on the big screen as 007 at roughly the same age as him! Luckily, age suits Vaughn (he looks his career best in the current UK series Hustle), who remains as dignified as ever. Whatever age they are, and whatever contrivances it took to get them reunited, it’s definitely a treat to see Vaughn and McCallum back together. But The Fifteen Years Later Affair still amounts to a sub-par U.N.C.L.E. outing. It works much better as a tribute to all the spies of the Sixties, complete with a shoestring Bondian finale with U.N.C.L.E. commandos versus THRUSH henchmen, each in their own color-coordinated jumpsuits. As such, it's undeniably enjoyable. While it’s a must for U.N.C.L.E. fans, Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. also belongs on the shelves of James Bond fans, Avengers fans and spy fans in general. It’s a fascinating curiosity, and a portrait of a unique time in spy media history–the first pangs of nostalgia for the heyday of the 1960s.