When I was in Las Vegas a few weeks ago for the “Incredible Burt Wonderstone” press day, part of what we did involved a tour of David Copperfield’s private magic museum. In order to get into the museum, you have to go through an outer room that is a reproduction of the men’s wear store that his parents owned. Before showing us the secret door that would open the door to the inner warehouse, Copperfield told us that his favorite show as a kid was “The Man From UNCLE,” and as soon as he said it, the theme started playing.
To some degree, “The Man From UNCLE” has always been the poor cousin to other spy shows. Norman Felton is the creator of the show, but his work was overshadowed by the publicity around Ian Fleming, who created two characters for the show. Napoleon Solo and April Dancer (who later served as the lead in “The Girl From UNCLE”) both came from the back-and-forth between Fleming and Felton, and there was a point where the show was going to be called “Ian Fleming’s Solo.” The James Bond producers sued to prevent the show from using Fleming’s name in the promotions for the show, and his work was just a small part of the overall premise. Producer Sam Rolfe also played a big part in coming up with the details of how UNCLE worked. Once the show went on the air, it was quickly turned into a buddy show, with Robert Vaughn playing Solo and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin. The series ran for 105 episodes in the mid-to-late ’60s, and it was a massive cultural hit.
U.N.C.L.E., which stood for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, was a sort of catch-all spy agency, and the stories the series told dealt largely with their ongoing battle against THRUSH, a criminal organization that was founded by Col. Basher Moran, the chief henchman to Professor Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s main adversary. What made UNCLE so different was the way they utilized agents from around the world working together. For a Cold War era series to show an American and a Russian agent teamed as partners was kind of amazing.
It is little wonder that Hollywood has tried to figure out how to turn “The Man From UNCLE” into a feature film for years now. There was a point where Quentin Tarantino wanted to do a version with George Clooney as Napoleon Solo, and Tarantino is a big enough fan that he screened “The Spy With My Face,” a feature film version of the show, at one of the QT Fests I attended. In the early ’80s, there was a reunion film on CBS, but the attempts sense then have all been designed to reboot the entire thing. Clooney was also attached to play Solo when Steven Soderbergh was recently toying with the idea of making the film, and Scott Z. Burns wrote that version. I have no idea what happened to make Soderbergh cool on the project, but Guy Ritchie, fresh off the “Sherlock Holmes” films, was the studio’s first choice to replace him.
Now, according to Deadline, it looks like Tom Cruise may sign on to star in the film, and I’m having trouble understand what it is that Cruise would see in the material that he doesn’t already have in his “Mission: Impossible” franchise. True, “UNCLE” was far campier and even absurd at times, but they’re still basically stories about spy organizations that can go anywhere and do anything. Maybe it’s as simple as Cruise wanting to work with Ritchie, but if that’s the case, why not just hire him to make a “Mission: Impossible” film instead of starring in a film that sounds like it will be so close?
At this point, there are so few bona fide movie stars that we’re seeing this sort of casting talk, asking people to essentially play the same thing in several different series. It demonstrates a lack of imagination on the part of the studio, but more than that, it’s a perfect example of just how fear-driven things are right now. Instead of trying to find a great Napoleon Solo who isn’t already a big name, Warner seems to be working from a very short list of viable leads, and it sounds to me like if they do make this version of the film, it’s going to be hard for the studio to convince audiences that this is something they haven’t already seen.
Cruise will next be seen in “Oblivion,” which opens everywhere on April 19.