Almost a parody

Making a spy thriller with comedic overtones is tough: How much comedy is too much? Past a certain point, the movie might become a parody - think this year's Spy, Get Smart (2008) or the Austin Powers franchise (1997, 1999, 2002) - losing all dramatic tension.

For Guy Ritchie, director and co-writer of The Man From UNC.L.E., it meant experimentation.

"You take it up to the line (of parody). But once you cross that line, it's hard to recover from it," he tells Life during a media junket in London.

During shoots for the movie, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, he worked with leads Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill to dial in a precise level of humour.

Ritchie, 46, was aware that the movie was vulnerable to being dismissed as a campy take because its source material already had a campy edge. The original The Man From UNC.L.E. was a James Bond-tinged television show that ran from 1964 to 1968. Ritchie says he remembers watching the show as a child and used those vague impressions to build the movie with co-writer Lionel Wigram.

There are scenes that show American agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) and Soviet counterpart Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) deploying implausible gadgets and martial arts moves, all while shooting verbal barbs at each other.

"There was a non-stop conversation about how far you can push it before you lose the value of the stakes, before it turns into a parody. There is an unsaid rule - you are aware of the situation, but you need to take it to the line," Ritchie says.

For certain scenes, actors were asked to do the scene thrice.

Ritchie adds: "They had to do it the straight way, the take-the-p*** way and the middle way. Then you had some latitude. It's comedy. It's hard to create that tone because you are on thin ice. But I like comedy and don't want to take things too seriously."

He is known for his laddish action and dry, often dark humour in the two Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey Jr (2009, 2011) and made his career on London gangster pictures Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000) and RocknRolla (2008).

"Comedy is like a wild animal - relax the reins too much and you will end up with something you will be embarrassed with," he says, probably keeping in mind the 1980s James Bond films (Octopussy, 1983; A View To A Kill, 1985) that took the franchise deep into camp territory.

As in his Cockney crime movies and Sherlock, his new film has men who have a prickly relationship based on friendship, but undercut with tension. Ritchie says that sort of buddy dynamic feels natural for him.

'That's just life. It's in people to know one another and it's pertinent to all of us," he says.

Co-writer Wigram, who worked with Ritchie as writer on Sherlock Holmes (2009) and the upcoming third movie about the detective played by Downey, interjects.

"There is a third buddy (in The Man From U.NC.L.E.) who's a girl. We are quite proud of that and it puts a new perspective on things," he says.

Rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander plays Gaby Teller, an East German mechanic recruited to help the pair of men get in touch with her father, a nuclear scientist employed by an underground fascist group.

Hammer, 29, who plays Kuryakin, thinks that too much is being made of the fact that the movie's title has no recognition factor for people in his age group or younger.

"The movie's packaged in a way that even if you don't have past experience with the TV show, you can still understand what's going on and appreciate the characters," says the American, known for parts in The Lone Ranger (2013) and The Social Network (2010).

To play Kuryakin, he developed an accent that he calls "universal Russian" from the Internet.

"YouTube is an actor's greatest friend for research," he says.

For English actor Cavill, 32, getting American agent Solo's voice right was more involved. He worked with a coach to get a suave, mid-Atlantic tone in the style of classic actors such as Cary Grant.

"Not a modern mid-Atlantic, but with a dated feel to it," says the actor best known for playing Clark Kent/Superman in Man Of Steel (2013) and in the upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, due next year, followed by two more superhero films set in the world of Gotham City and Metropolis.

But director Ritchie disagreed. To him, the tone the actor's training gave him made him sound too British.

Cavill recalls: "He says, 'I know you can do an American accent and people who've seen your other movies know you can do one, but people who don't know will just think you're a Brit doing a s*** American accent.'"

A quarter of the way into shooting, they settled for what is seen in the movie - a Solo who sounds more American than originally intended.

Cavill says he welcomes the UNC.L.E. films becoming a franchise, adding that it would be fun as an actor to inhabit the heads of Clark Kent and Napoleon Solo for a few years.

"You have to mix it up and break it up or it gets a bit boring. Napoleon's really fun to play and, as much as Superman is a stoic character, it's cool to have superpowers" he says.

Vikander says she remembers watching the source TV show over her father's shoulders in Sweden, but for her, the attraction of playing Gaby is how the character both plays up and subverts female stereotypes found in spy movies.

"People have their ideas about Gaby and then that will flip quite a few times," says the 26-year-old who got her start in Swedish TV and film before taking on English-speaking parts in the period drama Anna Karenina (2012) and this year's sci-fi piece Ex Machina.

She says she was also keen to work with Ritchie.

"I had never done comedy or action. I'm a fan of Guy Ritchie and I was curious about his very specific dry, black humour and how he gets that out of his actors," she says.

For all the vehicular action scenes the two leading women are in, Melbourne-raised actress Elizabeth Debicki laughs when she says that neither she nor Vikander knows how to drive. A stunt driver, hunched into a box, handled the car out of the camera's sight.

Debicki, 25, plays the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra, the Englishborn wife of an Italian magnate who is part of a network seeking world domination.

"We are both completely impractical human beings. In Melbourne, I took public transport everywhere. One day I will get a licence. I know how to drive a car, but you don't want to get in it with me," she says.

This article was first published on September 2, 2015.
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