Man from U.N.C.L.E: Guy Ritchie’s Take on Popular 1960s TV Series

Henry Cavill (“Man of Steel”) stars as Napoleon Solo opposite Armie Hammer (“The Social Network”) as Illya Kuryakin in director Guy Ritchie’s action adventure “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a new take on the popular 1960s television series.

Set against the backdrop of the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” centers on CIA agent Solo and KGB agent Kuryakin.  Forced to put aside longstanding hostilities, the two team up on a joint mission to stop a mysterious international criminal organization, which is bent on destabilizing the fragile balance of power through the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology.

The duo’s only lead is the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to infiltrating the criminal organization, and they must race against time to find him and prevent a worldwide catastrophe.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E” also stars Alicia Vikander (“Ex Machina”), Elizabeth Debicki (“The Great Gatsby”), Jared Harris (“Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows”), and Hugh Grant as Waverly.

The screenplay was written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, who previously collaborated on re-imagining the classic detective Sherlock Holmes in two hit films.  The story is by Jeff Kleeman & David Campbell Wilson and Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram, based on the television series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

 

Making the Movie

Guy Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a fast-moving, action-packed, sexy and stylish international adventure, shot through with humor, that is as much about the rocky relationship between two sparring superspies – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – as it is about the job they have to do.

“It’s a zone I find fascinating, the way men interact with each other,” says Ritchie, who directed, produced, and co-wrote “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” screenplay, based on the hit 1960s TV series of the same name.  “Even going back to ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,’ I’m drawn to that male-to-male dynamic as kind of a genre unto itself.”

Dynamic would be the word for it, as the first time elite CIA operative Solo meets his formidable KGB counterpart, Kuryakin, they are trying to kill each other.  Each has been sent to extract the same vital German asset from behind the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War, and taking out the competition in the process would just be icing on the cake.

Days later, after being informed by their respective handlers that they will now be working together on the case, killing each other is unfortunately – albeit temporarily – off the table, leaving the sworn rivals to vent their national and professional antagonism in a bare-knuckled, bust-up-the-furniture, “getting to know you” fight designed to convey in no uncertain terms that they might be stuck with this deal, but they don’t have to like it.

So in some respects, it’s a buddy movie…apart from the fact that “they kick the living daylights out of each other as soon as they meet,” says Henry Cavill, who stars as Solo, the suave and often self-serving American agent.

Starring as Kuryakin, Armie Hammer offers the volatile but more conventional Russian’s point of view: “Kuryakin is the ultimate soldier, always in line and giving his best.  Then he’s thrust into a position that he hates and there’s nothing he can do about it.  This guy he’s working with, this Napoleon Solo, he’s so unorthodox.  He doesn’t follow the rules.  He doesn’t even seem to know there are rules.”

“What we found so irresistible,” says Ritchie, “was taking these polar-opposite agents and forcing them together so that they start out trying to annihilate each other and end up cooperating, but maybe still not entirely trusting each other.  The story is largely the evolution of their collaboration. The fact that one represents capitalist America and the other represents communist Russia, and these two super powers have to team up to neutralize a threat with global stakes, is a great premise that you can have a lot of fun with, and that’s really the spine of the story.”

Producer and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram is reunited with Ritchie following a successful partnership on the equally genre-blurring “Sherlock Holmes” films.  “One of the ways we put our own spin on it was by making it an origin story about how U.N.C.L.E. was formed,” he says.  “In the series, U.N.C.L.E. already existed.  So in the midst of the Cold War you had the CIA and KGB secretly teaming for the greater good at a time when East-West relations were at their absolute worst.  How did such an alliance come about?”

The film opens in 1963.  The U.S. and the Soviet Union are locked in a tense, high-stakes game of chicken over nuclear arms supremacy, and the wartime research of former Nazi scientists is still at a premium on the not-so-open market.  A 12-foot concrete wall divides post-World War II Berlin and it’s here, in its long shadows, that Solo and Kuryakin first size each other up in a breakneck, winner-take-all street chase.

Their prize is Gaby Teller, a whip-smart East German auto mechanic played by Alicia Vikander, who is also the estranged daughter of Dr. Udo Teller, once Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist.  Doc Teller has lately gone missing, launching both world powers into a race to find him before his very specific and very dangerous knowledge is channeled into weaponry that could obliterate whole countries.  And Gaby may be the only bait that can flush him out.

Opting to retain the initial property’s Cold War context, with all its cultural and political touchstones, Ritchie says, “It’s a tip of the hat to the series.  We wanted to capture the essence and uniqueness of that time while making it immediately accessible to today’s audiences, and as original, attractive and fresh as possible.” The resulting tenor “is both period and contemporary, which feels like a very natural process to me.”

As film fans will attest, that’s another hallmark of the director’s work.  In much the same way the “Sherlock Holmes” films took audiences into Victorian London without losing the edge that made them so sharp and current, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” distills everything that made the 1960s cool – from its art, fashion and music, to its attitudes and perspectives – into a spot-on but understated vibe that is both retro and undeniably 21st century.

“That’s the Guy Ritchie magic,” Wigram remarks.  “He strikes a certain note which, somehow, makes everything feel ‘of today.’”

“What I remember most about the series was its tone,” Ritchie reflects.  “And when the opportunity arose for me to make the movie, that’s what inspired me.  The idea of ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ just rang a bell for me.  I had an intuitive response to it.”

In some ways, the 1960s depicted in “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a rare and enticing moment in time that only really existed on screen.

“For us, the ‘60s were the coolest decade and ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ was a part of that,” Wigram continues.  “We were always keen on doing a spy story.  We loved the early Bond movies, which really made an imprint on our young minds, and then the Italian and French films of the time, like ‘L’Avventura’ and ‘La Dolce Vita,’ that had a particular flavor we found so stylish and interesting.  Whether it’s the clothes, the cars, the movies, or the design, the ‘60s really marked the beginning of the modern age.”

It’s their shared influences, combined with a passion for cinema and a simpatico sense of humor, that make Ritchie and Wigram such a tight writing team.  “It’s great having a producing partner who can write, because writing is fundamental to filmmaking and the story is an organic, living, ongoing process,” Ritchie acknowledges.

“We both love the idea of taking a classic genre and putting a twist on it,” Wigram adds.  “And Guy is constantly trying to do something new with the action, to give audiences something they haven’t quite seen before.”

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” stands entirely by itself.  But for those familiar with its genetic line, including Ritchie, Wigram, and fellow producers John Davis and Steve Clark-Hall, there is a bonus in sharing their affection for an archetype that enthralled mid-1960s television viewers and spy-game aficionados on both sides of the Atlantic.

“When I was growing up, they were the coolest guys with the coolest gadgets and weapons,” recalls Davis, raised in the U.S. “It was a secret international force working behind the scenes to keep the planet safe, like the United Nations of the spy world, and I loved it.”

Typifying the young British fan of the time, Hugh Grant, who stars as the enigmatic Waverly, confesses, “I had a ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ model car.  I believe you pressed the top off and it shot guns out of the sides.  I might still have it.”

One reason that tales of espionage and secret agendas continue to thrill and entertain, generation upon generation, might be the cyclic nature of history and politics.  “Without getting too deep,” Clark-Hall suggests, “with the Snowden case and the massive amount of recent revelations about the sort of spying that still goes on, I think it’s something that people are intrinsically fascinated by – the nature of relationships and the opportunity for betrayal, the complex alliances nations find themselves in, and not being sure who to trust.  In some ways today’s world is reflective of the tensions of the ‘60s that the movie plays on.”

Additionally, Jeff Kleeman and David Campbell Wilson, who share story credit with Ritchie and Wigram, cite the enduring allure of “daring lone agents who take on powerful forces and display grace under pressure.  What really sets spy films apart are their heroes, who time and again are forced to rely upon their true secret weapons: ingenuity, resourcefulness and wit.”

The key, for Ritchie, in bringing all of this energy together – apart from the barbed banter and unshakable cool of his charismatic leads – is what he calls “the balance of real danger, drama and action with a lightness of touch.  It’s the juxtaposition of different moods that I find most creative and stimulating,” he says, noting that he makes the kinds of movies that would attract him as a viewer and a vital ingredient of that is the kind of humor that tends to percolate to the surface almost effortlessly.  “Not that it should all be funny.  I’m looking for the whole gamut of emotions.   We start off writing more serious scenes, but what often happens on the day of filming is that the scenes start not taking themselves quite so seriously and the humor invariably finds its way in.

“We had a great cast all around, led by Henry and Armie, and Alicia as Gaby,” he continues. “The guys have brilliant chemistry and Alicia is truly something special.  And they really had to work for it.  It wasn’t a soft job, not mentally or physically.  Filming is collaboration and I want actors to own what they say.  Granted, a director has the advantage of seeing the bigger picture and the actors have to trust that, but I’m always interested in the best idea in the room.  As long as it doesn’t hold us back, and it seldom does, I’m up for everyone being creative.”

“It’s a great feeling knowing that, together, you’ve gone beyond what was originally on the page,” says Vikander. “You get to know your character better because you’re not only thinking about what they say, but about what they might say.”

Cavill, for whom working with Ritchie was the number one reason he signed onto the project, concurs. “His movies are fantastic and his filmmaking style is unique.  There’s no over-rehearsing, so you can get in there and do it, and it feels very fresh and new when you shoot.”

“It really keeps you sharp.  You have to do your homework and show up ready for anything because things can change,” adds Hammer, who likewise jumped at the chance to work with the acclaimed director.  “I think he intentionally keeps the atmosphere light because you get the best work when everyone is free and everything is flowing.  It’s an open, inviting, creative space and that’s what Guy tries to cultivate on the set.”

Credits

John Davis (“Chronicle”), Steve Clark-Hall (“RocknRolla,” the “Sherlock Holmes” films), Lionel Wigram, and Guy Ritchie produced the film, with David Dobkin serving as executive producer.

Ritchie’s behind-the-scenes creative team included two-time Oscar-nominated director of photography John Mathieson (“The Phantom of the Opera,” “Gladiator”), production designer Oliver Scholl (“Jumper,” “Edge of Tomorrow”), editor James Herbert (the “Sherlock Holmes” films, “Edge of Tomorrow”), Oscar-nominated costume designer Joanna Johnston (“Lincoln”), and composer Daniel Pemberton (“The Counselor”).

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” will be shown in IMAX in select theaters.

A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, a Ritchie/Wigram Production, a Davis Entertainment Production, a Guy Ritchie Film, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” will be distributed worldwide by Warner Bros. Pictures, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company.