DVD review: ‘Return of the Man from UNCLE’ is an ’80s trip

Man from UNCLE fans who eagerly bought the original series on DVD now have one last chaser for their almost full glass: a 1983 reunion TV movie called The Return of the Man from UNCLE (aka The Fifteen Years Later Affair).

Where UNCLE originally was a product of the groovy ’60s, and a spy obsession sparked by the James Bond craze, this effort is so distinctly ’80s that you half-expect Cyndi Lauper to pop up and be-bop. It’s also very much a TV movie-of-the-week product, using cheap location shoots in Nevada to pass for globe-hopping intrigue, and offering Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace as the ultimate in exotic gambling destinations.

Then there’s the supporting cast, a virtual who’s who of  overly familiar TV character actors and borderline stars, but with a few nice touches. Having The Avengers’ Patrick Macnee take over for the late Leo G. Carroll as UNCLE chief is a winner, and there’s a cheeky cameo by one-time Bond George Lazenby playing “JB,” who helps out in a pinch.

As for Anthony Zerbe, Keenan Wynn and Geoffrey Lewis, all have seen better days.

Of course, what really matters is seeing Robert Vaughn and David McCallum again as UNCLE agents and partners Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, respectively. The latter hardly seems to have aged — and still hasn’t, as seen on CSI. But Vaughn has passed the point of passing as a tough spy guy, and when the two are brought out of retirement to tangle with THRUSH over a nuke threat that feels very Austin Powers, only McCallum seems truly up to the rough stuff (though Vaughn still looks spiffy in a tux).

If you can forgive this film for its low-budget stretch — and believe me, I do — it’s fairly entertaining in a good-try nostalgic way, showing you can go home again, provided it’s only 15 years later and not closer to 20. (Indiana Jones fans, take note.) The only real drawback is that, after going to great lengths to reunite Solo and Kuryakin, the story sends them on different paths, so they rarely spend screen time together.

I also miss Jerry Goldsmith’s music from the original series, which provided one of the best TV soundtrack albums ever.

Oh well — you can’t have everything. But for UNCLE fans, this Return DVD from Paramount is a reasonably satisfying swan song for a show that never measured up to the Bond films by any means, but was a welcome diversion in the realm of on-a-budget prime-time TV. And Vaughn and McCallum, then and now, are a duo worth celebrating.

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