What’s at stake for the U.N.C.L.E. movie

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer during filming in Italy

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer during filming in Italy

As The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie approaches the end of principal photography, here are some thoughts about what’s at stake for the production.

A potential U.N.C.L.E. franchise or back to limbo? There have been various attempts to revive the 1964-68 series. But there was a 15-year gap between the series and a 1983 television movie with original stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum and another 30-year gap until the new movie started filming in September.

It’s a situation similar to The Lone Ranger. There were movies in 1956 and 1958. There wasn’t another live-action film until 1981, which flopped. It wasn’t until 2013 until another movie was released. It, too, flopped.

Best case scenario: the U.N.C.L.E. movie is enough of a hit it spawns sequels. Worst case: It flops and U.N.C.L.E. goes back to limbo for decades, if not forever.

A chance for Henry Cavill to become a star for something in addition to Man of Steel: Comic book movies sometimes revive careers, such as Robert Downey Jr. in three Iron Man movies and The Avengers. In some cases, an actor can be a star in a comic book-based film but not necessarily have that success spill over to other projects.

Playing Napoleon Solo is different than Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel. It remains to be seen if U.N.C.L.E. broadens Cavill’s star power before the Superman-Batman movie that’s slated to come out in 2015.

A chance for Armie Hammer to recover from a flop: Armie Hammer had the title role in 2013’s The Lone Range, although Johnny Depp’s Tonto was the star. Still, generating $260.5 million in worldwide ticket sales (splitting the take with theaters) isn’t the way to make money when you’re spending $215 million (or more) to produce the movie. Put another way: The Lone Ranger had total U.S.-Canada ticket sales of $89.3 million. Skyfall, the most recent James Bond movie, had $88.4 million in its opening weekend in the U.S. and Canada alone.

A hit always helps an actor. With the U.N.C.L.E. movie having an estimated budget of $75 million, it should be easier for the U.N.C.L.E. movie to be financially successful. But whether that happens remains to be seen.

Depp’s version of The Lone Ranger flops

"See the guy in the mask, Illya? He's going to play you in the U.N.C.L.E. movie." "That's a relief. For a minute, I thought it might the fellow in the odd makeup."

“See the guy in the mask, Illya? He’s going to play you in the U.N.C.L.E. movie.”
“That’s a relief. For a minute, I thought it might the fellow in the odd makeup.”

The $225 million (or more) Johnny Depp version of The Lone Ranger is now considered a flop after selling only $29.4 million in tickets in the U.S. and Canada during the July 5-7 weekend and $48.9 million since its July 3 opening.

This is worth noting here for two reasons: 1) Armie Hammer, who plays the title character, is slated to portray Illya Kuryakin in an upcoming film version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. 2) Johnny Depp, whose Tonto is the primary character in the latest incarnation of The Lone Ranger, had expressed his interest in the Kuryakin role back in 2011, which greatly complicated the production of the would-be movie.

After watching The Lone Ranger film, it’s still hard to tell how Hammer will fare playing Kuryakin in the new U.N.C.L.E. movie. In The Lone Ranger, Hammer’s John Reid is a doofus when he’s supposed to be and heroic when he’s supposed to be. Any problems with the movie stem more from its length (149 minutes), how it mocks the Lone Ranger character (multiple times) and how it indulges Depp (constantly).

In the last 20-25 minutes, the movie finally kicks into gear, helped by the William Tell Overture, but it takes too long to get there. The Depp version of The Lone Ranger also borrows The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But Valance’s Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), while naïve when he first goes to the West, isn’t a moron as Hammer’s John Reid is depicted at times. Also, like Liberty Valance, there’s a flashback within a flashback.

UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter estimates that Disney could lose as much as $150 million on The Lone Ranger.

Could Johnny Depp wreck U.N.C.L.E. movie?

“Have our little plans gone askew?”

–Thrush villain Victor Marton (Vincent Price) in The Foxes and Hounds Affair

If Steven Soderbergh’s planned movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. crashes without reaching production, it may be due to a chain reaction involving Johnny Depp. At least, that’s the impression you getting reading between the lines of a POST ON THE PLAYLIST WEB SITE.

Playlist first SAID IN SEPTEMBER that Soderbergh’s first choices to play U.N.C.L.E. agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, the lead characters of the 1964-68 television series, were Michael Fassbender and Joel Kinnaman. In the new post on Nov. 9, the Playlist says Warner Bros. had been on board with those choices. The plot thickened, however.

The monkey wrench came however when “The Lone Ranger” had fell into budget problems at Disney. In the interim, Johnny Depp read the Scott Z. Burns-penned (U.N.C.L.E.) script and wanted to take the Ilya (sic) role. WB were over the moon and essentially let it be known that Soderbergh could essentially cast anyone in the lead with a huge star like Depp in co-starring role.

Of course, after a little budget cutting, The Lone Ranger was again given a green light and Depp was no longer interested in U.N.C.L.E. In the interim, according to the Playlist, Fassbender and Kinnaman moved onto other projects. In effect, Depp’s flirtation with taking on the role made famous by David McCallum cost pre-production time for the U.N.C.L.E. project.

More complications, according to the account: the studio now wanted Matt Damon to star, except he’s busy.

WB pushed to shoot the (U.N.C.L.E.) film the following year, in early 2013 with Damon in the lead, but Soderbergh – who definitely wants to make the Liberace biopic “Behind The Candelabra” his last film for at least the foreseeable future — held his ground.

Soderbergh is supposed to direct the Liberace project, which will be shown on HBO, around mid-2012. Based on the Playlist account, the clock *appears* to be ticking. If Soderbergh and Warners can’t get leads cast *relatively soon* it may be hard to get an U.N.C.L.E. movie in production in time for Soderbergh to do it. And, as of now, there’s no Kuryakin and no Solo, played by Robert Vaughn in the television series.

Thus, Depp’s involvement may prove to be the catalyst that eventually runs wrecks an U.N.C.L.E. movie before it starts. That’s certainly the case if — and we stress that word — Soderbergh departs. Development likely would start all over again from scratch. We’ll see.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. curse

Warner Bros, which wants to make a movie version of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has seen two possible leading men, George Cooney and Bradley Cooper drop out of the project, is finding it hard to pull off a remake of the 1964-68 televison series.

Welcome to the club.

What follows is a guide to *some* of the previous attempts. Maybe this possible movie really is cursed.

1976-77: Writer-producers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts hire Sam Rolfe, the original developer of the show, to do a script for a made-for-televison movie that could be the springboard for a new show. “The Malthusian Affair” has some interesting concepts (including having a dwarf occupy an armored exo-skeleton) but it doesn’t get past the script stage. Had it become reality, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum would have reprised their roles as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin.

Early 1980s: Would-be producers Danny Biederman and Robert Short cobble together a theatrical movie project. Their script had Thrush, the villainous orgnaization of the original series, take over the world without anyone realizing it. Vaughn and McCallum had expressed interest, as had former 007 production designer Ken Adam. Alas, nothing happened.

1983:: The only post-series U.N.C.L.E. project, the made-for-television series movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. airs on CBS. No series, or even a sequel made-for-TV movie, develops.

Early 1990s: Sam Rolfe attempts to do a made-for-cable-television movie that would have been an U.N.C.L.E. “next generation” story. Rolfe drops dead of a heart attack in 1993, ending any such prospect.

Circa 2004-2005: Norman Felton, executive producer of the orignal show, cuts a deal with a small production company for some sort of cable-televison project. Nothing concrete occurs.

2010-2011:: Warner Bros. entices director Steven Soderbergh to direct an U.N.C.L.E. movie after a number of false starts. As of now, nothing concrete has occurred. Whether that remains the case remains to be seen. Still, the odds seem long that Ian Fleming’s other spy (created with Norman Felton) will make a comeback.

UPDATE: For crying out loud, according to THIS STORY ON THE PLAYLIST WEB SITE, Johnny Depp wanted to play the Illya Kuryakin role played by David McCallum in the original show. But when Depp backed out, that complicated matters.