Sunday, September 11, 2011

U.N.C.L.E. Week: The Karate Killers

“The Five Daughters Affair,” a two-part episode from THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.’s third season, hit foreign theaters as THE KARATE KILLERS. MGM furnished producer Boris Ingster with extra money for two-parters, knowing they would easily recoup the cost and more at the box office.

The result of the higher budget meant a stellar guest cast—movie stars like Curt Jurgens (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME), Herbert Lom (RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER), and Joan Crawford rarely did episodic television—and bigger action sequences. KARATE KILLERS’ opening scene with the super-cool U.N.C.L.E. car being pursued by rocket-launching miniature helicopters stands up to the chases in many more expensive spy flicks of the era.

Unfortunately, KARATE KILLERS has too much star power for its own good. The disinterested Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are supporting players in their own movie and have barely more screen time than their stunt doubles. Norman Hudis’ episodic screenplay appears more interested in creating broad cameos for the guest stars than in giving the stars anything meaty. The “treasure hunt” scenario is not a bad one in theory, but director Barry Shear (ACROSS 110TH STREET) helms Hudis’ more like IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD than James Bond, right down to a “comic” fight scene.

U.N.C.L.E. and THRUSH are in a race to find a murdered scientist’s formula for transforming seawater into gold. The clues lie with the scientist’s stepdaughters, who are scattered around the globe. Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (McCallum) compete against THRUSH agent Randolph (Lom) to find Margo (Diane McBain), now married to a jealous Count (Telly Savalas); Imogen (Jill Ireland), who’s in the custody of a London constable (Terry-Thomas); and Yvonne (Danielle DeMetz), the plaything of Swiss von Kesser (Jurgens). On Randolph’s side are four kung fu henchmen who wear identical costumes like on BATMAN. Solo and Kuryakin get beaten up a lot, which doesn’t humanize them or make them more vulnerable. It just makes them look clumsy.

Not among the better U.N.C.L.E. movies, THE KARATE KILLERS is still entertaining with good pacing and sets. Ireland, who wears a bikini, was married to McCallum at the time and appeared on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. five times. Gerald Fried composed an original score for the film version that apes Nelson Riddle. Every Mothers’ Son, an MGM Records act, sing their hit “Come on Down to My Boat” over the main titles.


Max Allan Collins said...

Despite the fact that Robert Vaughn is visibly bored in this one, it would have been a really strong UNCLE movie if it weren't for the BATMAN-style, silly-attired henchmen.

Anonymous said...

Actually Ireland had already left McCallum for his best friend Charles Bronson. I am always amazed that she was on UNCLE after their very public split.