We first heard concrete news of yet another big-screen adaptation of a classic TV series - namely, 60's spy romp The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which has languished in development hell since the 1990's - quite some time ago. Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin was originally named as director, with a script by Max Borenstein.
Not long after that, Steven Soderbergh was reportedly on board to helm the project from a script by Scott Z. Burns (Side Effects), with George Clooney eyed for the lead. Clooney then abandoned the project, and while the film was left on the ever-busy Soderbergh's back-burner for quite some time, he too eventually bowed out.
Now, Deadline reports that Cruise has left the project in order to focus on Mission: Impossible 5, which he's producing and starring in. Word is that Paramount and Skydance are ready to begin shooting the latest entry in Cruise's signature franchise before the end of the year, a timetable which conflicted with Warner Bros.'s plans for U.N.C.L.E.
Guy Ritchie replaced Soderbergh as director, and together with his Sherlock Holmes producer Lionel Wigram, seemed poised to finally shepherd this high-profile - and potential franchise-starter - into theaters. The ground shook when it was reported that Tom Cruise would presumably take the lead role of Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn in the original series), with The Lone Ranger's Armie Hammer (to play a similarly updated version of the character Illya Kuryakin, originally portrayed by David McCallum) soon joining him.
This project just cannot catch a break. While it's theoretically possible that Cruise could shoot this before starting in on M:I5 (by all accounts, Warner Bros. is ready to shoot U.N.C.L.E. this fall but if they really wanted Cruise, they could be compelled to re-schedule), Cruise's lasting investment in the Mission: Impossible series requires his attention. With Ghost Protocol proving the most well-received (and biggest success) of the franchise so far - and with his last two star turns Oblivion and Jack Reacher under-performing, Cruise is taking no chances.
The scheduling difficulties appear to be the official reason for the star's departure, but with Soderberg leaving over creative differences, there may have been disagreements over the direction of the project. Or the entire premise may just be as stale as it sounds. The idea of a spoofy spy flick was fun in, say, 1997 (the year the first Austin Powers movie premiered) but as the last few entries in the Pierce Brosnan run as James Bond approached self-parody themselves - and with Daniel Craig dominating as a muscular, no-nonsense Bond in Skyfall - the notion of a hyper-kinetic Guy Ritchie spy movie doesn't seem quite as exciting anymore.
Odds are Warner Bros. will keep this moving, and quickly find a new name for the picture. This could also be a big opportunity for Armie Hammer - still firmly attached - to move into the lead role. He'll have to prove he can hold his own next to a scenery-chewing Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger, but judging by the trailers and his impressive turn in The Social Network as the Winklevoss twins, he looks to be ready for leading-man status.
More on this project as it plays out.