How do you bring an ageing TV show back, present it to modern cinema audiences and not only make it contemporary but as big, bad and loud as movies have become over the ensuing decades?
You call resurrection specialist Guy Ritchie, that’s how. After arriving on the world stage in a blaze of Tarantino-esque comedy violence and cockney rhyming slang with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), the 46-year-old Hertfordshire native – no, he’s not from London’s East End – evolved to become the go-to guy to revitalise old names for the screen. He did it with Sherlock Holmes using the most highly paid actor in the world in Robert Downey Jr, he’s doing it with King Arthur next year, and The Cannonball Run after that.
But first up is 60s-era TV spy adventure The Man From UNCLE, with Superman himself – Henry Cavill – Armie Hammer and star-on-the-rise Alicia Vikander as well-dressed Cold Warriors teaming up to stop a dastardly plot in Rome and East Germany.
“I think we’re going through a period where we like the idea of taking an old brand, dusting it off and representing it,” Ritchie explains when TimeOut caught up with him to talk about the movie. “It’s a great challenge. You go ‘okay, here are ten properties, you’ve got to choose one’. So you pick one, dust it off and think ‘I think we can do something with this’.”
It’s the same method he’s applying to King Arthur, his next project (he describes the appeal as there being ‘something there’). “I don’t feel there’s ever been a good movie made about it, so actually it’s more challenging than anything else we’ve ever done. It feels entertaining, it feels current, honest to what the poem or narrative is.”
In describing what he’s doing now with titles like Holmes and UNLCE, Ritchie’s use of the word ‘dusty’ to describe the stories he finds and remakes is interesting. He says it’s got as much to do with a personal connection to the story as it has with the possibility of doing something exciting with it, but like everything in Hollywood, it never seems a slam dunk at the time.
“With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see that Sherlock Holmes was an obvious property. But f__k me I’ll tell you what, it floated a barrel for a long time before anyone thought that. And it was Lionel [Wigram, Ritchie’s longtime producer who’s been with him since the first Sherlock Holmes] who was aggressive about saying ‘look, there is something here’.
What does seem like a slam dunk is the career of Ritchie’s star, Henry Cavill. After gaining attention on TV’s The Tudors and the starring role in the mostly-forgettable big screen efforts like The Immortals, the 32-year-old Brit stepped into the coveted boots of pop culture’s most recognisable character when he played Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel.
Now appearing in next year’s follow up Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and the two-part Justice League (DC Comics’ answer to Marvel’s The Avengers), he’ll be as famous for the role as he will be comfortable in the iconic tights.
But his role in The Man From UNCLE as hero Napoleon Solo, he explains to TimeOut, is because even after playing Superman, he still has something to prove. “I definitely chose this role to be contrary to Superman, he says. “Because when you have a movie of that size come out it’s human inclination to say ‘I now know what that person is’, and you have to fight against that as an actor.”
Not that Cavill’s going to – in his words – ‘go crazy and play a meth-head transsexual guy’, but he wants the freedom to show the audience he has range. “The first time people saw me on a world scale was Superman and that’s not necessarily what I do,” he adds, “I’m a period guy to be honest.”
The Jersey-born actor has a point. When TimeOut suggests Snyder’s casting was brilliant counter-programming after his career until then, he agrees, but adds that ‘only people who knew my career beforehand would think that. Most people still think I’m American.’
Cavill also says he had fun playing the dashing hero Solo in Man From UNCLE after Superman’s godlike selflessness and morally incorruptible nature. “I brought my all to Napoleon Solo as I did to Superman, just Napoleon Solo is very different character. He’s a good guy as Superman is but he’s so very different. He thinks of himself first as opposed to everyone else.”
Man From UNCLE releases August 13.