Director and stars talk about The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E is a slick, playful revival of the cult 1960s TV series. Here's the inside story from director Guy Ritchie and stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer.

Henry Cavill and director Guy Ritchie, right, on the set of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Daniel Smith / Warner Bros Pictures
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"I wanted to dust off an old title," says Guy Ritchie, the British director behind the slick new espionage movie The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Truth be told, it's worked for him before. His previous two films, 2009's Sherlock Holmes and its 2011 sequel Game of Shadows, put a fresh, action-packed spin on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic sleuth and his buddy Dr Watson, steering them to a new audience (with a little help from Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law) and a billion-dollar box-office haul.

So when Ritchie hit on the idea of rebooting the 1960s TV spy series, which originally starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, it felt like a perfect fit for him and his producer/co-writer Lionel Wigram.

“Lionel and I are both Bond fans, particularly early Bond, and we fancied that genre,” says Ritchie.

"So it was that, coupled with something similar enough to Sherlock Holmes – in that it was two guys leading the charge. But different enough to make it feel fresh."

Keeping the story set in the suave, swinging 1960s, Ritchie was also able to maintain the original show’s central premise: two rival spies from either side of the Iron Curtain, forced by their respective governments to work together as part of a global espionage network. On the American side, we have ex-con-turned-CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill). And for the Soviets, there is hugely efficient man-mountain Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). From Russia with love? Not quite.

“There’s friction,” says Ritchie. “They’re disparate, essentially, their personalities, but in a different way than the Sherlock-Watson relationship.”

Indeed, unlike Conan Doyle’s detective and his loyal friend, there’s little love lost between these two.

“They’re polar opposites but they’re both very good at what they do,” says Cavill. “They’re experts in their own fields. Those fields sometimes gel wonderfully and other times clash spectacularly.”

Early on, they are asked to court an East German defector (Alicia Vikander, most recently seen on screen as a humanoid robot in Ex Machina), in the hope of stopping a villainous Italian conglomerate with ambitions to enter the nuclear arms race.

“It feels like a very European film,” says 26-year-old Vikander, “[with] so many different nationalities. I’m Swedish, playing German. Armie is American, playing Russian. Henry is British playing American. It’s a mix of cultures.”

For Hammer, a 28-year-old actor previously best known for playing the title role in The Lone Ranger, becoming Kuryakin gave him a chance to channel his Eastern European roots.

“The character is very Russian, inherently,” he says. “He’s a Russian KGB agent.”

So how did he approach it?

“For me, it’s more about finding the truth in that and finding what I can use from personal experience, trying [to borrow] from Russian people I know – and trying to do everything I can to make it feel authentic.”

The good news for Ritchie and co is that, unlike many classic TV shows that are repeated regularly on TV, U.N.C.L.E. is a show that's rather been lost in the mists of time, meaning that they were more free to play about with the formula.

"I personally haven't seen it," says Cavill, 32, who takes on the role of Solo in between two stints as Superman, in 2013's Man of Steel and next year's Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.

“This is our story and we don’t want to just mimic the work of people before us.” While the film features a nod to the original in the shape of Alexander Waverly, the British head of the U.N.C.L.E. organisation – here played by Hugh Grant – Ritchie’s film has a more feminist slant than the TV show.

Alongside Vikander’s “tomboy” mechanic Gabby, Australian-born Elizabeth Debicki, 25, has a ball as the film’s main villain, the flamboyant Victoria Vinciguerra. “I think there’s something really fun about being so evil and cunning,” she says with a laugh. “The baddies usually get really cool stuff. They get cloaks. They get sunglasses. And the best forms of transport.”

In a year that's already seen the release of Kingsman: The Secret Service and in which Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation hit big – and with the return of James Bond in Spectre still to come in October – in the face of some tough competition, Ritchie's film can at least claim to be the best-dressed spy film of 2015.

The Joanna Johnston costumes are fabulous. And, in a nod to La Dolce Vita and other classics of Italian cinema, the real-life Rome locations only add to the film's sense of style.

“It makes it feel like you’re not just playing dress up,” says Hammer.

“You feel like you’re there.”

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. opens in cinemas on Thursday, August 20