Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, who play two U.N.C.L.E. agents in the movie directed by Guy Ritchie, look dashing, especially in the behind-the-scenes pictures.
Why Henry Cavill wasn't cast initially as Illya Kuryakin? Empire gives the answer: because Guy Ritchie thought, “If we made him blond he’d probably look like Javier Bardem in the Bond film.”
What does Henry thinks about replacing Tom Cruise? “I don’t think it’s right to say I’m filling the Tom Cruise role,” he says, clasping his hands in his lap. “The characters are so different now. Tom would clearly have been playing a very different character to mine, albeit of the same name. It’s not that I was replacing Tom Cruise; it’s that the dynamic of the story changed and I happened to fit that better.”
Why Henry is so restrained speaking about the Man From U.N.C.L.E. in his interviews? “I’m so bloody scared about giving anything away,” he explained to Empire. “Although I’ve become very good at keeping secrets.”
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THE COLD WAR JUST GOT COOLER
Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer get suited and booted for Guy Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — a movie that promises to bring the fun back to the spy game
On the set of Guy Ritchie’s fresh new take on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., there is just one person who vividly remembers the TV show that gave it a name. If you combined the age of its stars, Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, they would just about add up to someone senior enough to have watched it during its early-’60s first run — so they’re out. Ditto the leading ladies, Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki, who are in their mid-twenties and therefore basically zygotes. Its director calls it something “I remember vaguely”. Hugh Grant, though. Hugh Grant is your man.
“Not only have I watched it,” Grant tells Empire rather triumphantly, “I had a little Man From U.N.C.L.E. car. You pushed the top and these two” — he gestures to co-stars Cavill and Hammer — “would pop out of the sides. So yes, I remember the show well. I remember the enemy was T.H.R.U.S.H., and I’ve been an enemy of thrush ever since.” (We’ll explain T.H.R.U.S.H. later.)
So, if you’re among the number that don’t recall the programme, or even the 1960s, don’t worry. There won’t be a test. There won’t be any “previously on U.N.C.L.E.” business. Because, according to those making it, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 2015 is not a revamp that’s desperate to pull in a loyal audience clamouring to see their favourite show on a bigger screen; it’s an opportunity to take the best bits of a great idea and throw out all the parts that look a bit rusty. Ritchie and his team aim to rescue the spy-movie genre from dark introspection and take it back to the days when car chases were fun, you changed your suit every five minutes so the baddies had something new and eye-catching to shoot at, and having sex with someone didn’t mean at least one of you got killed off two scenes later.
“I’ll be honest,” says Guy Ritchie, in what is not the typical party line on an adaptation, “I’m not really a fan of the show.” He says this terribly cheerfully. We’ve joined him in Rome, where he’s commandeered a perfume ad-ready town square and a grand hotel, in which we sit among chichi furnishings and piles of cables. Ritchie, relaxed in polo shirt and jeans, clinks the ice in a Campari and grapefruit juice, a surprisingly camp choice for a man whose early films birthed a posturing wide-boy culture during the ’90s. Though a publicist repeatedly tries to hurry him back to work, Ritchie is not for rushing, each time pointing at his glass — “I haven’t finished this yet” — and continuing to explain why a man who just spent approximately four years making two period buddy movies, with his pair of Sherlock Holmes pictures, is taking on another, albeit with different tailoring. “More than anything else it is a great, entertaining premise,” Ritchie says. “The bones of it are good.”
The TV show, based on a concept by Bond creator Ian Fleming, ran from 1964 to 1968 and starred Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo, a suave CIA agent, and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin, his rigid KGB counterpart. At the height of the Cold War, these two natural enemies are asked to team up under the umbrella of a secret organization known as U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) to fight a much bigger foe — the mysterious T.H.R.U.S.H., which was fixated on taking over the world. It was huge in its day and ran for 105 episodes, but over the past 50 years it’s lost relevance and is now only held dear by ’60s fetishists. Yet there is still something there: a mismatched-partners comedy with plenty of tension, an opportunity for an array of far-flung locations, and the innate joys of espionage.
“It’s like ’60s Bond,” says Ritchie. “I liked all the ’60s iconography of it. That made it palatable for me. I think the best Bond movies were made in the ’60s. I suppose I wanted to make a spy movie of sorts… It was the first thing since Sherlock to which I’ve had a visceral reaction.”
You can see why it would appeal. Ritchie has always liked films about men on a mission and complicated conspiracies, but while Bond might be too serious for his sensibilities, a spy movie that treats the possible end of the world as a bit of a lark seems very much in his wheelhouse. “There were only a few requisites I needed from the TV show: you have a Russian and an American; the Russian is blond and the American is dark. And then you have global stakes. Once you’ve ticked those boxes, then there’s no more [baggage].” So that’s all he’s keeping. “Just as I did with Sherlock, I felt I could reinvent this.”
A look out of the window illustrates exactly what he means. On set, everything is pristinely glamorous — like the 1960s has been recreated from a range of vintage GQ photo shoots. It’s not quite a pastiche of the decade, but a cherry-picking of the coolest elements. The cars are all sporty, the dresses all short, the hair big and suits crisp as a February morning. It’s not so much early Bond as an episode of Mad Men in which Don Draper reveals he dabbles in a little espionage whenever he’s sober enough to drive. A sampling of footage suggests a tone that is chummily winking at its audience, either to let it know it’s enjoying the joke or to tempt it into bed. It’s a bit silly and very sexy. And everyone is preposterously good-looking.
If you were to sit down with a police sketch artist and just give them the description, “Stupidly handsome. Off -the-charts genetically blessed. The sort of man God might design and then give himself the rest of the day off ,” you would likely be presented with something looking like one of Ritchie’s leads.
For the role of swaggering Solo he opted for Henry Cavill, and for the more businesslike Kuryakin (a role for which Cavill initially read, but was rejected because Ritchie thought, “If we made him blond he’d probably look like Javier Bardem in the Bond film”) Ritchie chose Armie Hammer. Empire has just watched them nipping about on a scooter for a daring getaway, looking every bit the super-cool secret agents, but the second they sit down they look nervous.
“I’m so bloody scared about giving anything away,” admits Cavill, who appropriately is the more talkative of the two. Hammer will mostly interject to confirm a fact or qualify his co-star’s statements, which is very Russian of him (he’s Californian). “Although I’ve become very good at keeping secrets,” says Cavill, the sometime Superman.
“And after all,” adds Hammer, “there’s a Cold War on.”
Fortunately, Lionel Wigram, the film’s producer and Ritchie’s co-writer, is more than happy to share details. “This is an origin story,” he says. “There is no U.N.C.L.E. until the end of this movie… And we’re not using T.H.R.U.S.H. because I don’t think you can say that with a straight face these days.” Instead, the bad guys will be a network of ex-Nazis who have spread across the world after the war. “They’ll never have another Reich, but they can form a criminal empire and destabilize the world.” Which is what brings Solo and Kuryakin together.
The reappearance of a presumed-dead nuclear scientist puts the willies up the US and Russia, who fear his work getting into very dangerous hands, so they dispatch their best men to find the only person who knows this man intimately — his daughter, Gaby (Alicia Vikander). “Solo gets sent to East Berlin to find the daughter, who now works as a mechanic,” Wigram continues. “However, the Russians are on his trail. Solo’s trying to get her across the Berlin Wall and Kuryakin’s chasing them…” They do such a collectively good job securing their quarry that their bosses, one of whom is played by Jared Harris, decide they should work together, in secret, for the greater good. Which they celebrate by trying to kill each other in a public toilet.”
An origin story seems a natural choice, given it allows the film to establish its own history and not have to worry about ‘catching up’ those who’ve never seen the show. Also, as Hammer points out, “The TV show never gave you the backstory. In the first episode it just starts. U.N.C.L.E. already exists.”
But getting to this decision took years. Warner Bros. had been looking at producing a Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie ever since it acquired Turner Broadcasting in 1996 and secured the rights to the property. Both Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh hovered above the director’s chair, and when Guy Ritchie eventually took it, it was with Tom Cruise in the role of Solo. It was only when Cruise backed out of talks in order to do Mission: Impossible 5 that Cavill was suited up and the project given a shoot date. Cavill looks bashful when asked about stepping into the shoes of the biggest star in the world.
“I don’t think it’s right to say I’m filling the Tom Cruise role,” he says, clasping his hands in his lap. “The characters are so different now. Tom would clearly have been playing a very different character to mine, albeit of the same name. It’s not that I was replacing Tom Cruise; it’s that the dynamic of the story changed and I happened to fit that better.”
Ritchie backs this up, saying that in the time between his signing up in 2013 and shooting in 2014 he threw out the existing script by Scott Z. Burns, rewriting with Wigram so that “not a single syllable of the previous script remains.” Though he considered using actors in middle age, he ultimately opted to “go younger — partly because I’d gone older in Sherlock.” It would also seem to better fit the freewheeling, bed-hopping mood he’s aiming at.
Again, fitting with their characters’ personalities, Hammer spent weeks studying the show to sense its mood. “It was very episodic and each week was its own story. There was nothing that carried on, so it got to the point where it was: ‘How many times can you watch these guys save the world?’ I think that was the ultimate downfall of the show. Then it started to get really loosey-goosey and silly. The second season, I think, was the best — when they first switched to colour.”
Cavill observes this monologue with interest, then adds, “I’ve never seen any of it.”
Hammer points at his co-star, “He plays the antiestablishment one.”
Empire returns to sunny Italy two months later to observe Ritchie filming a car race. But something has gone horribly wrong. Someone has moved Italy to Goodwood Circuit in Chichester, where it’s belting down with rain and there are no charming restaurants offering every pasta imaginable; just a van that’s run out of bacon rolls.
“Bit different, isn’t it?” says Ritchie, a can of Coke now standing in for his Campari and grapefruit. “We’ve been using this place as an Italian race circuit. We’ve had about four hours of sunshine in four days, but we’ve managed to get it.”
Today’s scene involves a race, which the villains — handsome billionaire Alexander (Luca Calvani) and his evil wife (Debicki) — have staged to cover up some secret bit of mischief, while Solo, Kuryakin and Gaby have all snuck in wearing various disguises to thwart him. Scads of vintage cars, all so expensive we’re forbidden to touch them, are zipping around in circles; on the other side of a field, Grant is hopping out of a military helicopter, heading for the party. In the middle of it all is Ritchie, looking like a kid with the best toy box ever.
It is instantly clear why Ritchie thought this something worth reviving.
“We have to accept, and we are aware of, the fact that the brand doesn’t carry a great deal of recognition,” he says as the cars chug back to the start line. “But that’s kind of the point. It’s a good idea. This,” he gestures around him. “This is fun.”
The world might be on the brink of destruction, but that’s all the more reason to enjoy it while it lasts.
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The Man From U.N.C.L.E. will hit theaters on August 14, and the "People's Premiere" will be held on August 7 in the open air at Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House.
The second trailer for the film lasting 2:24 is set to be in front of Warner Bros' new movie, San Andreas on May 29.