Sep 25, 2013

TV Review: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pilot (2013)

“What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward?” asks S.H.I.E.L.D. honcho Maria Hill (guest star Cobie Smulders, familiar to audiences from playing the role in Marvel’s The Avengers). And this brief exchange isn’t just in there for the sake of exposition. It is a crucial bit of exposition, of course, at the beginning of a show called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. designed to appeal to far broader audiences than ever picked up an issue of Jim Steranko’s groundbreaking 1960s run on the comic book Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it also serves to brilliantly set the tone for executive producer Joss Whedon’s take on the concept. Whedon, who also directed the Marvel Avengers movie, directs the pilot episode of the series, and co-writes with Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.

“Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division,” replies the vaguely Bondian super-agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton), who we’ve just watched retrieve a MacGuffin (a Chitauri neural link, for those who care) from a bad guy’s Parisian apartment while taking enough time to flirt with the villain’s lingerie-clad mistress and dispatch a team of thugs before dangling from a helicopter to make his escape over the rooftops of the City of Lights. There’s the exposition, telling people what, exactly, they’re watching. (And reminding long-term fans that the acronym’s meaning has changed over the years.) Except… well, that’s really no answer, is it? What are audiences to make of that assembly of non sequiturs? Agent Hill presses further.

“And what does that mean to you?”

“It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out S.H.I.E.L.D.,” he responds. pausing before adding more seriously, “It means we’re the line. Between the world… and the much weirder world. We protect people from news they aren’t ready to hear. And when we can’t do that, we keep them safe.” And so the exchange serves to set the tone for the whole series. This is a S.H.I.E.L.D. series, fully subscribing to both the premise of the comics (an U.N.C.L.E.-like espionage agency taken to comic book extremes, tasked with taking on super powers and super science that would be laughable in a Bond movie), but it’s also a Joss Whedon series (he previously created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly), self-aware and referential, with a clear sense of humor even in the face of inevitable tragedy. (Whedon loves tragedy.) It’s a Whedon take on S.H.I.E.L.D. As a fan of both, I found it difficult to reconcile the two based on the somewhat schizophrenic promos for the series, but that one exchange makes it entirely clear to me what that will be like, and that it will work.  

Whedon’s sense of humor (apparently shared with his co-writers) elevates the entire pilot episode, and clearly differentiates this acronym show from the CBS acronym shows like CSI and NCIS in all their iterations. Yes, those shows have humor too, but not the Whedonesque brand of postmodern, self-deprecating humor. Interestingly, rather than distancing the show from the comics, as I feared that style of humor might do, it serves to make the show feel more like a comic book. Everything in this world is heightened—the jokes as well as the action—and that’s exactly as it should be.

Hill is interviewing Agent Ward because he has been selected to be on a new mobile task force whose purview includes all the new superheroics and alien technology popping up around the world after the apocalyptic events of Marvel’s The Avengers (generally referred to as “the Battle of New York”). He’s not happy about it. “Why was I pulled out of Paris?” he demands.

“That you’ll have to ask Agent Coulson,” Hill replies. Coulson, filmgoers will recall, is the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent created specifically for the movies, who first popped up in Iron Man (2008). Since then, the fan-favorite character played by Clark Gregg has gone on to appear in Iron Man 2, Thor, various Marvel short films, and, of course, the Whedon-directed megahit Marvel’s The Avengers. And in the last one (spoiler alert, for the two readers who still haven’t seen that movie), he died. Audiences know that, and so does Grant.

“Uhh, yeah,” he says. “I’m clearance Level 6.  I know that Agent Coulson was killed in action, before the Battle of New York. Got the full report.”

At that point, Coulson himself emerges from the darkness and intones, “Welcome to Level 7.”  Here another show might queue the bombastic music and go to commercial, but Whedon being Whedon adds a comedic zinger, explaining the dramatic entrance. “Sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself,” Coulson explains apologetically. “I think there’s a bulb out.”

The rest of Coulson’s hand-picked unit includes ace pilot Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen), who’s clearly no stranger to combat, either, and geeky tech duo “Fitzsimmons,” which really refers to male nerd Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and his inseparable female counterpart Jenna Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge). Their first mission is to track down and hopefully aid a new superhero who’s just popped up in Los Angeles, dubbed by the papers “the Hooded Hero” and played by Angel’s J. August Richards. To do that, they’ll need to enlist the aid of a sexy, sassy-but-slightly-vulnerable female “hacktivist” (oh how I hate that word!) Skye (Chloe Benett). Over the course of the pilot she’ll go from wanting to expose the secret government agency through her one-woman Anonymous-like “organization,” The Rising Tide, to becoming their newest recruit.

The Hooded Hero turns out to have a connection to this summer’s Marvel blockbuster Iron Man Three, and his storyline proves a very effective dress form on which to hang the character interactions that serve as the fabric of the pilot. I was impressed with the relative ease with which Whedon & Co. managed to work an introduction to the world, introductions to a whole slew of characters, seeds for ongoing plotlines, and a mission-of-the-week story into one cohesive narrative. At this they succeed better than many pilots. 

Those characters are clearly meant to be the series’ heart, though, and for the moment they remain its most problematic aspect. From the pilot alone, I’m not sure who’s meant to be the lead. I presume that it will be Skye, but while Bennett is a very appealing actress, she’s probably the most hackneyed character of the batch, a Standard Whedon Type. It also struck me as a bit odd to have two young, white, brunette female geeks on the show, the science geek Simmons and the computer geek Skye. So far they seem quite similar, and of the two, Henstridge’s Simmons scored a much bigger impact.

But perhaps the lead is supposed to be Coulson. He’s the recognizable face right now, and certainly afforded the most on-screen awe in the way he’s shot and talked about—and possibly in screentime too. But what made that character work so well in the movies was, as a friend of mine put it, that he was completely square. He was the quintessential faceless government agent, and the humor came from the fact that as the films proceeded, he was given a face—a very likable face, in fact.  But likable works better in small doses in movies than it does as the agent in charge on a S.H.I.E.L.D. show.  Comics readers are used to having Nick Fury in charge, and though the cigar-chomping, eye-patched “S.H.I.E.L.D. ramrod” (as Stan Lee dubbed him in his inimitable and incessant word-packed caption bubbles) may have started out as more caricature than character, there’s no denying his utter gravitas. Samuel L. Jackson plays a version of Fury more based on Marvel’s Ultimate line of comics from this century (which was in turn based on Jackson himself, making it an easy enough part for him to play) than on the Sixties hero, but there’s no denying his gravitas either. An organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. needs a Nick Fury, and Coulson doesn’t fit the bill. For one thing, Gregg smiles way too much to be a “ramrod!”

Or perhaps Ward is meant to be the lead in this ensemble. He’s the one we’re first introduced to, in a nifty little mini-movie that showcases the heightened espionage action of the S.H.I.E.L.D. world. (I really appreciated that like the David Goyer-penned telefilm of a decade-and-a-half prior, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. really goes for that blend of espionage and super-science, rather than just settling for being an X-Files-style paranormal investigation squad.) And he’s the closest thing to a ramrod in the bunch. (Well, actually Melinda May has that potential, too, but we don’t see enough of her in the pilot to know for sure.) But Dalton seems a bit too unsure of himself in the role, so far, to be leading man material. (He excels, however, when afforded a chance at light comedy thanks to a truth serum. For me, the comedy always worked in this pilot.)

So we’re left with a S.H.I.E.L.D. in need of a Nick Fury, but given the unlikelihood of luring movie star Jackson to television, that was always the challenge. (Though I fully expect him to cameo at some point.) My friend pondered the point of a superspy show without superspies, but I think Whedon and his cohorts have adopted an interesting alternative take. This is the rare spy show that has more Marshalls than Sydneys, more Q’s than 007’s. What are we to make of all these nerds running around? Well, in this geek-chic/Wiki-leak era of nerds as heroes, perhaps that’s precisely the right take for our time. Given how much I like the framework and the humor, I’m certainly willing to go with them on this ride and see how it pans out, though I really would like a clear ramrod for all these geeks to support.

Futuristic, out-there spy-tech has always been a hallmark of S.H.I.E.L.D., since you could get away with a lot more out-there concepts in a comic book than you could on the big screen (Bond) or television (U.N.C.L.E.). With no budgetary constraints, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and especially Jim Steranko were able to create crazy gadgets that Q could only dream of. So how do those gadgets which owe their very existence to “you can’t do this on television” imaginations fare when finally translated, five decades later, to television? Foremost among those incredible creations of the Sixties was the mobile S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, a massive flying aircraft carrier dubbed the helicarrier which hovered high above the earth. Since the helicarrier was superbly realized in Whedon’s Avengers movie, I was hoping we might see it on TV as well. The CG models were already made, and perhaps they’d saved some standing interior sets. Sadly, there’s no sign of the helicarrier in the pilot. Instead, this unit uses a huge black transport plane as its mobile base of operations. (Oddly, it’s emblazoned with a huge S.H.I.E.L.D. logo, as are their Hummers, which seems strangely conspicuous for a secret spy agency!) Logo aside, the plane actually makes a lot of sense, given that it only needs to convey a small group of people, not all of S.H.I.E.L.D. (It’s also pretty impressive in itself for a TV budget.) Other S.H.I.E.L.D. tech fares well, overall. Ward utilizes some cool spy gadgets in his caper at the beginning, and Fitzsimmons have their own array of future-tech they use to investigate the scene of an explosion. But the best of all comes at the episode’s conclusion. [Minor SPOILERS follow!] Agent Coulson drives a red ’62 Corvette convertible. Other characters make fun of him for clinging to an antique, but in the final moments of the pilot, he demonstrates just how cool an antique can be when he pushes a button on the console and (Steranko and Kirby fans will see this coming), the wheels fold horizontally out of the wheel wells, becoming hover platforms, and the car lifts off and zips away toward the camera!

I’ll be honest.  All I really wanted out of a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series was to see that Kirby concept of a flying spy car realized on screen, and it’s realized beautifully. (Nick Fury’s Sixties hovercar was a Porsche 907, and later hovercars in the comics have paid blatant homage to the vehicle that inspired their forebear by using Aston Martin bodies, but the classic ‘Vette works just fine for me!) I actually clapped out loud, alone in my living room, when that happened. And then I rewatched the scene several more times. I want the toy! Whatever minor quibbles I had with the show up till then, I was completely sold in that moment, and am eagerly on board for the rest of the season. I just hope ABC has the budget to give us an awesome flying car chase during Sweeps.

For a less favorable opinion on the S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot from a man who has more right to criticize it than anyone else in the world, you can read a review at The Hollywood Reporter by Jim Steranko himself! I do agree with most of his points, though they didn’t diminish the overall impact of the show for me. In an incredible coup for THR, Steranko (who has recently become a Twitter superstar) will be providing weekly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recaps at the trade site. Based on the first one, Marvel should really consider hiring him as a consultant for the series! (He’s given a special thanks at the end, along with Ultimates creators Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are also given credit up front for creating the comic book concept.) Of course thanks to THR, they’ll be able to read his characteristically candid advice for free every week (that must be daunting for the writers!), so maybe they’re better off saving the dough for that flying car chase….

ABC will re-air the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot on Thursday, September 26 at 8pm EST.

Sep 10, 2013

Tradecraft: Fox Buys Sheldon Turner Conspiracy Thriller Pilot Frayed

Deadline reports that Fox has bought a conspiracy thriller pilot written by Up In the Air scribe Sheldon Turner. The show is based on a pair of Dutch miniseries Bellicher and Bellicher: Cell, which were in turn based on a popular trilogy of Dutch thrillers by Charles den Tex. (The books have not yet been translated into English.) According to the trade blog, Frayed "centers on an arrogant and entitled corporate consultant who gets embroiled in a grand conspiracy that forces him to go on the run. As his entire life unravels, he’ll come to realize that the only man who can help him is a perpetually paranoid and possibly delusional former NSA agent." Deadline's Nellie Andreeva reports that paranoid Seventies thrillers like The Conversation, The Parallax View and Three Days Of The Condor serve as touchstones for Turner on this project. Good touchstones!

More Intel on the Format of the Reconstituted 24

Fox Chairman of Entertainment Kevin Reilly offered  further information on the exact format of the all-new, back from the dead, reconstituted incarnation of 24 (entitled 24: Live Another Day) returning next year to Fox. We already knew the network's signature real-time action series would be back as a 12-episode miniseries rather than a 24-episode season, but how would that change the one hour of TV equals one hour of real time daylong scenario? Reilly told Crave Online (via Dark Horizons) that the story would still unfold over the course of the day, but certain hours would be skipped. Producer Howard Gordon clarified that scenario for the website previously, saying, "We’ll keep it a 24 hour story but we’ll tell 7-8, 8:15-9:15, 10-11 and then skip 3 hours if we need to. I think it’s going to actually make us not have to do the pretzel logic of some of the stuff." That sounds like an excellent plan to me. Not only did it always take me out of the action a bit whenever Jack Bauer managed to get from one side of L.A. to the other in less than the duration of a single episode in the middle of the day (an impossible feat given this city's traffic), but I felt like the seasons always sagged in the middle as the writers struggled to fill out the day. There would generally be a slam-bang beginning and a terrific conclusion, but in the middle things tended to drag a bit and we were stuck with situations like Kim being menaced by a cougar. Reilly, apparently, felt the same way, explaining that the miniseries format will provide the patented 24 experience we want without stretching the story too thin.

"Howard has always said, he always had 12 great ones, it was the next 12 that used to kill them.” Now that shouldn't be an issue. Not only that, but with the ability to skip hours of travel time, the new format opens up the series to more international locations. "This is going to be set in an international setting," Reilly told Crave. "They’ve got great ideas. I love doing it this way. I have been really heartened by the amount of equity left in the show. I am stopped by fans all the time, thanking me for bringing it back." Great! I can't wait to see Jack Bauer tearing it up overseas! That's what I was hoping for from the 24 movie that never got off the ground. It would be great to see a new 24 "event series" every summer for years to come, with Jack in a different international city each season.

In addition to Kiefer Sutherland, The Hollywood Reporter confirms that Mary Lynn Rajskub will also be back, reprising her fan-favorite role as Chloe, Jack's indispensable CTU support tech, without whom he couldn't have foiled half the terrorist plots he managed to foil, or opened up half the sockets he managed to open. ("Open up a socket, Chloe!" was one of Jack's favorite things to whisper-yell into his cell phone.) So far, those two are the only familiar faces to be cast in 24: Live Another Day, and Reilly says the rest of the cast will probably be filled out with new characters. I don't know; I think they need to bring back Tony Almeida, too...

Tradecraft: Katherine Heigl CIA Show Lands at NBC

Deadline reports that the untitled Katherine Heigl spy show we heard about last month has found a network home at NBC. (NBC had been the expected frontrunner to win a bidding war for the project.) The trade blog reports that the show "stars Heigl as a key CIA analyst whose job it is to debrief and strategize with the president on the most pressing global and national matters. She balances this incredibly high-stakes job and trusted relationship with her complicated personal life." Former CIA officers Henry Curmpton (author of The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in the CIA's Clandestine Service) and Rodney Faraon (who has briefed several presidents himself) lend their expertise as executive producers along with Heigl (Killers) and her mother, Nancy Heigl, and Hollywood vets Alexi Hawley (Castle, The Following) and Robert Simonds (This Means War, The Pink Panther 2). “I have been passionate about, and enthralled by, this project from the moment Hank, Rodney and Bob brought it to me over a year ago,” Heigl said. “The story is not only compelling and intelligent but a look behind the curtain at the CIA we haven’t seen before in film or television.”

Sep 9, 2013

Tradecraft: Ellen Page in Talks to Star in Queen & Country Movie!

UNCLE who? While spy fans have been focused on other (admittedly exciting) topics for the past week, Fox has apparently been slowly moving forward once again on a spy project so exciting that it eclipses nearly all others in my own mind: the long-gestating Queen & Country movie, based on Greg Rucka's excellent, excellent series of comic books and novels! We haven't heard any movement on Queen & Country since 2009, when Peter Chernin came on board as a producer. That's a long time to remain dormant, and I'd feared the worst. But today, The Hollywood Reporter reports new movement... major movement! According to the trade, Ellen Page (Inception, Juno) is in negotiations to star as British secret agent Tara Chace. Peter Chernin (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is still producing, along with Jenno Topping (I Spy, Charlie's Angels). The script of note is by Ryan Condal (Hercules: The Thracian Wars), who joined the project back in 2009 following previous drafts by Rucka, John Moore and Leverage creator Jon Rogers. I'd say it's a good sign that his script is deemed solid enough to last this long in the development process. According to the trade's log line, the film version of Queen & Country "tells of a British SOS [sic] operative named Tara Chace whose identity is compromised after she carries out an assassination." (Tara is actually a "minder" for the SIS, better known as MI6. Minders are roughly the equivalent in Rucka's world of le Carré's scalphunters, Fleming's Double O's, or, most directly, The Sandbaggers' sandbaggers. They're the special section.) This is basically the same log line that we've been hearing for years on this project, and still leads me to believe that the script is culled primarily from the first two arcs of Rucka's comic book, both of which are collected in Queen & Country: The Definitive Edition, Vol. 1 (an absolutely essential read for serious-minded spy fans!).

I unabashedly love Queen & Country. In my third ever post on this blog, way back in 2006, I called it "the best current, ongoing spy saga in any medium." Seven years later, I totally stand by that... except for that fact that with no new entry since 2011's novel The Last Run, I'm not completely sure it can still be called "ongoing." But even in the age of wonderful spy television like Homeland and The Americans and a renaissance for the James Bond moives, I still stand by Q&C as the best in any medium! It's simply great stuff, combining the Desk and Field sides of the serious side of the spy genre as well as past masters like Len Deighton's Samson series or Queen & Country's primary acknolwedged inspiration, Ian Mackintosh's Seventies TV classic The Sandbaggers. The entire run (to date) of the fantastic Oni Press comic book is collected in four oversized "definitive editions." These, along with the novels A Gentleman's Game, Private Wars and The Last Run comprise the entirety of the Tara Chace saga, again to date. In 2007 I came up with my own dream cast for a Queen & Country movie here. Ellen Page was not on my radar at the time, but I think she's an excellent actress and provided she can manage a convincing British accent (I'm guessing she can), she should prove a terrific choice! My other choices are probably a bit too old now to play opposite Page, but I stand by my selection of Hugh Laurie for the crucial role of section head Paul Crocker nonetheless! (Peter Capaldi would also be excellent, if a bit on the nose, but of course he's not tied up for the forseeable future with Doctor Who.) It will be interesting to see who ends up filling those roles, but I hope that Laurie (who made Fox a fortune during his years on House) is on their shortlist.

I really hope that Page signs on, and that her casting paves the way for this movie actually getting made! (And then I hope that inspires Rucka to revive the comic book, as he's been promising to do for many years now.) This is definitely one to keep an eye on. A series of Queen & Country movies could be the best thing to happen in the spy genre since Tinker Tailor!

Tradecraft: CBS Lands Another Potential Spy Series

As usual in the fall, the spy pilots are flying left and right at the networks. It's important to remember that few of these pilot scripts will actually end up being filmed, and even fewer will go to series come next season. But it's still exciting that there are so many spies in the potential mix! The latest to land at CBS is a drama from Bates Motel producer Kerry Ehrin and Revenge writer Nikki Toscano. Deadline reports that "the CBS drama centers on a retired CIA operative who, when a terrorist event rocks Washington, D.C., is pulled back into action, forced to investigate closer to home where the next generation of terrorists are being bred." It's written and executive produced by Toscano, with Ehrin on board as a consultant. The networks' interest in this type of series no doubt has something to do with the success of cable series Homeland (on Showtime) and The Americans (on FX).

Sep 6, 2013

Another Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Trailer

Another week, another new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV spot... Boy, between these videos and all those bus stop posters that are blanketing cities right now (well, I can speak for L.A. at least; I assume other cities, too), ABC is sure promoting this upcoming comic book-based spy series! This one doesn't add too much new footage, but there is a cool shot of someone dangling from a helicopter that perhaps hints at some of the wild action the old S.H.I.E.L.D. comics by Jim Steranko and Jack Kirby were known for, and one character refers to the Corvette we've seen in previous spots as "one of Coulson's S.H.I.E.L.D. collectibles." Being a fan of those comics, I really hope that means its wheels fold out to become "Mach-pressure fans" turning it into a flying spy car! If so, it's too bad it's not a Porsche 905 or Jaguar XKE as Nick Fury was known to drive in those wonderful Sixties issues, but I do like the idea of working elements of those classic comics in as "S.H.I.E.L.D. collectibles." (In Marvel's The Avengers, it was established that Agent Coulson avidly collects memorabilia related to superhero history, so it would be fairly logical to extend that collection to S.H.I.E.L.D. items of historical significance as well.) As I noted when they released the last trailer, I'm fully aware that this show won't be a direct translation of the 1960s Steranko comics I love so much, but I do hope that it finds clever ways like that to embody their spirit! Those comics themselves, products of that decade's spy craze, owed a lot to James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but Jim Steranko mixed in spandex and superheroics and surrealism and psychedelia to create a really unique, anything-goes take on spy-fi. As previously announced, Steranko's entire run on the series (which started out in the anthology comic Strange Tales before graduating to its own title) will be reprinted in a single volume this fall to tie in with the ABC show. For more background on the comic and the history of the fictional spy organization, read my full S.H.I.E.L.D. primer here.

Sep 5, 2013

Tradecraft: Cinemax to Air Original UK Strike Back, Previously Unseen in U.S.

Deadline reports that Cinemax will finally provide American audiences with the opportunity to see the original UK season of the action spy series Strike Back, which aired there on the cable channel B Sky B. Sky's Strike Back (known in Britain as Chris Ryan's Strike Back) starred Richard Armitage (MI-5) and Andrew Lincoln as agents of MI6's elite, ultra-secret paramilitary unit Section 20. Cinemax liked the series and wanted to acquire it, co-producing subsequent seasons and broadcasting them in America. Unfortunately, by that time Armitage had been cast in The Hobbit and Lincoln had moved onto The Walking Dead, so the Cinemax version was recast and rebooted, focusing on two entirely new characters (Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton as Stonebridge and Scott) also recruited to work for Section 20. (Why there was no carryover in the office support staff I don't know.) While the first Stonebridge and Scott season aired as Season 2 of the series in Britain, Americans were introduced to it as a brand new series. On DVD, it was labelled "The First Cinemax Season" and American viewers never had the chance to see the real first season... until now! Starting October 25 in the regular Strike Back timeslot (following the conclusion of the third Cinemax season), the cabler will air the original UK series as Strike Back: Origins, billed as a "prequel." This is great news, because that first season with Armitage is really wonderful television. Seeing it first, in fact, I found it far superior to the Cinemax version (though a direct comparison is somewhat unfair, as the two versions are tonally pretty different). Now American audiences at large can finally be exposed to these six exciting episodes of espionage action. (And finally share the frustration UK viewers felt at Armitage's brief cameo in the first episode of the Cinemax series!) Hopefully this will also lead to a DVD and Blu-ray release for Strike Back: Origins down the road. It would be great if it also led to the current version of the show revisiting some of the characters from that first incarnation and tying up a few loose ends! (Hey, despite what we think we saw, anything can happen... right?)

Read my review of the UK Strike Back here.
Read my review of the US Strike Back here.

And here's Cinemax's trailer for the rebranded Strike Back: Origins:

Sep 3, 2013

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Feature Film Officially Set to Begin Filming Next Week With Hugh Grant as Mr. Waverly

We've followed the various twists and turns in the road to make a feature film version of the Sixties TV classic The Man From U.N.C.L.E. for at least three years (when first David Dobkin and then Steven Soderbergh were set to direct, the latter with George Clooney starring), but it's been an even longer road than that. (As far back as the mid Nineties, there were rumors of a Quentin Tarantino version, and later Matthew Vaughn.) Things finally seemed to solidify somewhat in December 2011 when Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) came on board to direct, but even then it wasn't a smooth ride. We've followed the drama in the trades as various stars were approached and in some cases even attached (most famously Tom Cruise) before drifting away. Even as the final cast shaped up over this past summer, there was still no official announcement from Warner Bros. Today that changed. Today, the studio finally issued a press release officially confirming that filming commences September 9 on a Man From U.N.C.L.E. feature film starring Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) as Napoleon Solo, Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger) as Illya Kuryakin and Hugh Grant as U.N.C.L.E. boss Alexander Waverly.

We've known for a while about Cavill and Hammer and Grant was announced a few weeks ago, but this is the first confirmation I've seen that Grant will be playing Waverly... and that's the first bit of casting on this project that really excites me! I'm certainly not up in arms or anything about Cavill or Hammer, but neither choice struck me as especially exciting either. This one does. I wouldn't have pictured Grant filling the shoes of the great Leo G. Carroll, but now that it's done I can totally see it. (Especially following Grant's heavily made-up appearance in the Seventies portion of Cloud Atlas.) Best of all, though, the press release also officially confirms that the film will be set in the 1960s. This was the case when Soderbergh was attached (working from a script by The Bourne Ultimatum's Scott Z Burns), but I was afraid no other director would have the chutzpah to set a modern action movie in the Sixties. Still, it looked in recent months like Ritchie was doing just that, and Hammer made allusions to the film being a period piece in interviews, but it's wonderful to have that officially confirmed. The Cold War setting is the aspect that has me most excited about this project. We've seen a comedic recreation of the most fertile period in spy film history in the excellent OSS 117 movies, but I, for one, can't wait to see a straightforward action spy movie set in that era but shot with modern techniques. (Assuming, that is, that this U.N.C.L.E. film is a serious movie and not a comedic take, like Starsky and Hutch.)

Ritchie is not using the Burns script, but rather one that he penned with his producing partner Lionel Wigram. Wigram and Ritchie produce along with John Davis and Steve Clark-Hall; one-time directorial candidate David Dobkin remains attached as executive producer.

Here is the plot description provided in the press release:
Set against the backdrop of the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. centers on CIA agent Solo and KGB agent Kuryakin. Forced to put aside longstanding hostilities, the two team up on a joint mission to stop a mysterious international criminal organization, which is bent on destabilizing the fragile balance of power through the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology. The duo’s only lead is the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to infiltrating the criminal organization, and they must race against time to find him and prevent a worldwide catastrophe.
There are some details in there likely to alarm U.N.C.L.E. TV purists, but I'm thoroughly encouraged, personally. It makes complete sense for the American and Russian agents to come to U.N.C.L.E. from their respective countries' secret services. And as Wigram points out, this is a new take. "Guy and I have long loved these characters," he says, "and wanted to start from scratch with our own take and create a film steeped in the 1960s for today’s audiences." That sounds just fine to me. Beyond the origins, the plot sounds very much like it could come from an actual episode of the show, or from any number of spy movies produced during that decade. And that's as it should be. It sounds like it will involve the traditional U.N.C.L.E. rival THRUSH (the international criminal organization), and it sounds like it will involve an "innocent" (the TV show had a gimmick of teaming Solo and Kuryakin with a civilian - usually a beautiful woman - week after week) in the scientist's daughter.

Also confirmed in the cast are Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) and Jared Harris (Moriarty in Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes sequel). I really liked Debicki in Gatsby, and I've been a fan of Harris ever since his wonderful performance in the criminally underrated 1994 vampire film Nadja (a remake of Dracula's Daugher). Plus, he's now a Hammer star! Presumably Harris will be playing either the missing scientist or the villain... or possibly both, should those characters prove to be one and the same.