By Megan Gibson
August 13, 2015

Ever since 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels burst onto the scene, followed by Snatch two years later, the G.R.F. (Guy Ritchie Film) has been instantly recognizable for rapid-fire banter, slick suits, a vinyl collector’s soundtrack and action sequences that are as winking as they are heart-pounding. (Not to mention: flat out cool.) But ask the British director what defines a G.R.F. and you get a blunt answer: “It’s impossible.” Still, his new movie, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., definitely is one.

Both an origin story and a reimagining of the 1960s television series, Ritchie’s U.N.C.L.E. sees CIA agent Napoleon Solo (played by Henry Cavill) grudgingly team up with KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (played by Armie Hammer) to stop a mysterious international criminal organization.

Having reinvented the British crime caper, Ritchie now applies his idiosyncratic eye to the spy genre. He tells TIME how he did it:

Set your heroes apart. The current 007 and Bourne franchises celebrate tortured antiheroes who are eager to throw down. In U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie — who also co-wrote the script — instead focused on the “tone and charm” of Solo, a rakish, lovable rogue, and Kuryakin, whose tough exterior doesn’t quite mask his heart of gold. What’s more, Alicia Vikander, who stars as German mechanic Gaby Teller — a character who’d be branded a Bond Girl if this were a different sort of spy film — is given a fully fleshed out role, which is always refreshing in an action movie.

Go glam. Ritchie kept the plot rooted in the “golden age of the spy thriller genre” — the height of the Cold War. He filled the screen with sleek cars and gorgeous European backdrops, “getting rid of as much of the chaff of the ’60s without losing any of the character.” His characters are also impeccably dressed, a detail that’s winkingly high-lighted in a scene where Solo and Kuryakin get into a hilariously heated argument about women’s fashion.

Add a swinging soundtrack. The film’s cool look is complemented by another Ritchie staple: cool sounds. “The ‘60s is when music started becoming very exciting,” he says of the mix of sultry Italian numbers and smash pop hits that amp up the film’s energy.

Be cheeky. Ritchie’s most distinctive trademark? The wisecrack. U.N.C.L.E. is rife with them, along with clever asides and plenty of physical humor. Though Vikander praises Ritchie’s dab hand at injecting “a lot of wit and irony” into the script, a good deal of the humor was improvised by the actors with the director’s encouragement. The agents’ boss Waverly (played by Hugh Grant) sums of a series of Kuryakin’s gaffes thusly: “For a special agent, you aren’t having a very special day, are you?”

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