On a misty October evening at the Old Royal Naval College, on the set of Guy Ritchie's "Man From U.N.C.L.E.," Armie Hammer climbed out from behind the steering wheel of a cute, little snub-nosed East German car called a Trabant.
"I don't think these cars were made for people," said the 6-foot-5 Hammer, filming a chase scene set in 1963 Berlin with co-stars Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander. A stunt driver operated Cavill and Vikander's vintage Wartburg remotely from above as the cars performed a kind of side-by-side automotive ballet.
The period spy movie, due Aug. 14, pairs Hammer and Cavill as a duo on opposite sides of the Cold War, in roles popularized decades ago on television by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. The characters, like the cars, are vintage, but the story is new.
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"We originate from different sides of the Cold War initially, and we're forced together because circumstance requires it to fight world terrorism," Cavill said as he and Hammer waited in between setups. "There's a coolness, a humor and a little bit of grit as well."
Neither of the young actors was alive when "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." first aired as a 1960s TV series that teamed Russian and American secret agents under a fictional global intelligence agency called the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
For the film, Ritchie and his co-writer and producer, Lionel Wigram, conceived the idea of an origins story that would reveal how CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) met and arrived at their unlikely, nation-spanning collaboration. They invented Vikander's character, a mysterious East German car mechanic whose scientist uncle may be helping develop a nuclear bomb for the wrong people, and revived Waverly, the boss in the original TV show, played here by Hugh Grant.
"Basically, it starts out good guys and bad guys — and then there are worse guys," Hammer said by way of explaining the film's many plot reversals.
Ritchie and Wigram shared a love of early James Bond films — what Wigram called late Sean Connery/early Roger Moore — and wanted to make a spy film that returned to the glamorous era.
"People have reinvented Bond, but nobody's gone back to the 1960s," Wigram said.
Among the busiest people on set was the dialect coach: The film requires Cavill, an English actor best known for playing Superman in "Man of Steel," to again adopt an American accent and feign fluency in multiple languages, and Los Angeles-born Hammer, who played the title character in "The Lone Ranger," to speak with a Russian inflection.
The actors, like their characters, have wildly different temperaments, according to Vikander.
"Henry is a very hard-working guy," she said. "He's very intelligent. Armie is a bit more wild, with a lot of energy, like a puppy. He has such presence and ease when it comes to being in front of the camera."
Like Ritchie's two "Sherlock Holmes" films and his 1998 feature debut, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," which was shot in Britain and Italy, inhabits a world of both flash and toughness.
"We got to shoot in ruins, drive on great old roads," Hammer said. "It was an opportunity to rub up against history."
The actors also wear lavish period wardrobes created by costume designer Joanna Johnston.
"The 1960s is probably the last time we had any sense of fashion," Hammer said. "Men wore suits every single day. Women wore dresses. People really took the care to dress well and present themselves as fashionable."
Vikander, who was shooting on this October night in a tomboyish mechanic's jumpsuit, observed Cavill in a crisply tailored suit and Hammer in a newsboy cap and bomber jacket.