Wasp Network film assessment: Netflix’s star-studded undercover agent mystery lacks the edge
Director – Olivier Assayas
Cast – Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramírez, Gaël Garcia Bernal, Ana de Armas, Wagner Moura
The anti-American sentiment in Wasp Network isn’t hard to detect, even without the film spelling it out in opening title cards, but the inelegant storytelling certainly makes you wonder where the spy movie’s allegiances lie. It is the second time this month that actor Edgar Ramirez has been let down by a director named Olivier, in a Netflix film.
This time, the disappointment is real. Few would’ve expected Olivier Megaton’s The Last Days of American Crime to be anything more than the ineptly made action film that it was, but Olivier Assayas is no director-for-hire. He’s a four-time Palme d’Or nominee who co-wrote a Roman Polanski movie a couple of years ago — the definition of a French auteur.
Watch the Wasp Network trailer here
One look a the actors that he has assembled — many of whom have very little to do — should be enough indication of his pull as a filmmaker. Besides Ramirez, the cast includes Penelope Cruz (top-billed but underused), Wagner Moura and Ana de Armas (reuniting as lovers after the recent biopic Sergio), and Gael Garcia Bernal (who shows up after the halfway mark). But what could have been an old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger thriller is reduced to a muddled domestic drama about men who are rather cruel to the women who love them. Assayas is never able to navigate around the tonal discord.
Ramirez, the star of the filmmaker’s five-and-a-half hour biopic of Carlos the Jackal, plays a Cuban pilot named René González, who after kissing his wife and daughter goodbye one morning, hops on a plane, flies under the radar, and lands on American soil. He tells the media that he is a defector, fed-up with the authoritarian Fidel Castro regime. The year is 1990, and Castro, René believes, won’t be able to survive much longer, with the crippled Soviet Union’s funding having run out.
Gael Garcia Bernal and Penelope Cruz in a still from Wasp Network.
Through graphic maps and frequent aerial shots of the sea separating America and Cuba, Assayas effectively conveys the difference just a few miles can make in the lives of people. In Cuba, René says, ‘everything is short’ — the food, the electricity, everything. In Miami, he is hired by an organisation called Brothers to the Rescue, which dedicates its efforts to assisting Cuban emigrant rafters. René’s job is to make routine flights from Miami to Cuba, to identify boats carrying refugees and alert his teammates to help them before they’re captured by American authorities.
I recently crossed the India-Nepal border by road, and was greeted not only by the chaos that is synonymous with both countries, but also an absolute absence of security checks. On the Nepal side, having observed scores of men and women queued up on the side of the road, I was given a crash course on the illegal exchange of contraband that takes place at the border, at predetermined times during the day.
This was just before the coronavirus pandemic properly broke out in India, and witnessing the lackadaisical attitude at a border so porous was concerning.
Under the guise of seeking political refuge, many spurious activities are conducted by desperate men along the equally porous US-Cuba border in the film, leading both countries to wage a clandestine war against each other. It would take several more years before Vin Diesel, of all people, would be able to bridge the gap between the two nations by shooting a Fast & Furious movie in Havana.
But Wasp Network isn’t about Vin Diesel’s diplomatic endeavours. It is, instead, about a group of spies known as the Cuban Five. Their’s is an interesting story, which would’ve perhaps made for a fine film along the lines of Steven Spielberg’s Munich. But Wasp Network, despite Cruz’s Queen Bee performance, doesn’t have the necessary sting.