Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” which he wrote (with Lionel Wigram), produced and directed, is a flashier, glossier version of the popular television spy show that ran from 1964-1968. Inspired by Ian Fleming’s 007 adventures, this big screen version of the popular television show still has the gadgets, car crashes and explosions, along with the wit and banter.
The retro-flavored caper, which had its New York premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater this week, stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Cold War rivals. Cavill plays CIA spy Napoleon Solo, and Hammer portrays Soviet KGB operative Illya Kuryakin in the parts originated by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, respectively.
Stars of the film Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant and Luc Calvani graced the red carpet, although neither Vikander – who has at least six movies coming out this year – nor Grant spoke to press at my end of the line.
Also on the red carpet, everyone noticed Ritchie’s beautiful new wife, Jacqui Ainsley, who wore a long black gown and her hair down in curls. It was a family night for Ritchie, who was joined by his sons, Rocco and David Banda, with ex-wife Madonna. The two brothers posed with their arms around each other.
On the red carpet, Debicki, who wears dazzling 60’s outfits and big hair in the film, told me what surprised her most about Ritchie. “When you watch ‘Lock, Stock’ and ‘Snatch,’ you think it’s really gritty and fast and all that rough and tumble, but he’s like the loveliest, most chill man you’ll ever meet.”
Dressed in suits as impeccable as the Saville Row creations they wore in the film, the two square-jawed heroes of the film chatted for a few moments with journalists on the red carpet.
Asked whether he was concerned about how diehard fans of the iconic show would accept this version, Henry Cavill told me not so much. “Guy Ritchie really added his own stamp to this, and we’re still staying true to the essence of the TV show but this is now a wonderful Guy Ritchie version. It looks fantastic!”
I asked Cavill, did they improvise any of their lines? “There is improvisation allowed, yeah, but only within a certain box. It’s not just like, okay, go crazy, do whatever you want. If you stay outside the box he’ll probably say, ‘All right, go back to what we were saying before. I think he prefers if you improvise within rehearsals.”
The “Superman” actor did many of his own stunts, and he told me the most difficult was an extended scene underwater. “There’s a big old breath hold. It wasn’t easy.”
As for what he hoped audiences would take away from the film, Cavill said, “I want them to enjoy the ride. That’s the whole point. You’re supposed to be enjoying yourselves. We’re not taking ourselves too seriously and nor should you.”
Hammer was too young when “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” aired, but after he was hired he told me he went back and watched all the episodes. As for how fans of the television series will take to the movie version, Hammer told me, “We were doing something to pay respect and homage to the roots of the show, which are amazing, and the reason that we’re here today is because the roots of the show were so good. But what we did is we took those roots and completely modernized them. We made a Guy Ritchie movie out of it, which is very different, and you just basically stayed true to the tone he was looking for which was in the script.”
The next day, Ritchie and co-writer/producer Lionel Wigram turned up at the Apple store in SoHo to participate in a Q&A for a standing room audience.
About the casting, Ritchie said Cavill was originally slotted to play Illya, and Tom Cruise was supposed to play Solo. It was important, said the director to harken back to the original series and that Illya be blond. Armie Hammer “looked more sensible blonde,” said Ritchie. “Henry looked really silly when we put blond wigs on him, so when it fell apart with Tom, Henry slid into that position nicely.”
One of the most enjoyable aspects of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” is that it works as a 1960’s fashion show, with big bouffant hair, sprightly minis and form-fitting bespoke suits. Debicki’s character wears a caftan that could have been worn by Twiggy. The fabulous costumes are by Joanne Johnston and are sure to be noted when the Oscar nominations are announced.
About the designs, Ritchie said, “The clothes became an actor within the film, so clothes played a big part in it,” he said. “I was surprised by how much attention the film’s got because of the clothes that are involved. The aesthetic in general, the cinematography, the cars, the fact that we went to Rome, these were all part of the requisite boxes that needed to be ticked, all part of the genre of what we saw as the Golden Age of the spy genre.”
After the Q&A, the affable superstar director posed for selfies and photographs, including with a poodle mix that wore booties and a Met cap. “Is he real?” the director asked the young man who held the dog.
I asked Ritchie if this “U.N.C.L.E.” was the beginning of a franchise like his Sherlock Holmes films. He said he would enjoy revisiting the show with the same cast but, noted, “I don’t know. It depends on how well we do.”