'Wasp Network' underwhelms despite classy cast

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Few films would entice you so completely and right away. You have here a film billed as a thriller, based on a captivating slice of modern political history. It flaunts Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana de Armas and Wagner Moura (whew!). If the powerhouse cast was not enough, calling the shots is Olivier Assayas, five-time Palme D’Or nominee and winner of a Best Director trophy at Cannes.

For world cinema addicts, that’s a whopper that lands straight onto your OTT screens, a film that wouldn’t need much more endorsement.

If “Wasp Network” makes its case effortlessly for a quick watch, you also begin to see soon enough where the film is going astray. For all its rich background material and classy cast, Assayas seems to be struggling to carve a viable ‘Netflix thriller’ with his proven European arthouse sensibility. Cerebral suspense thrillers must have layers. But when the layers end up tangling the narrative, the outcome can disappoint.

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Assayas has fashioned a screenplay based on Fernando Morais’ book “The Last Soldiers Of The Cold War: The Story Of The Cuban Five”. The narrative, set in the nineties, starts off with Havana pilot Rene Gonzalez (Edgar Ramirez) hopping on a plane and flying off to Miami from Cuba. For Rene, defection to the US is actually that simple because he was born in Chicago. He can technically claim to be an American by birth.

Rene has left behind more than just his pilot’s job in Havana. Back home, he has also abandoned wife Olga (Penelope Cruz), to fend for herself and their child. In the US, Rene starts working for Jose Basulto (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who works to help Cuban emigrants enter America, even as Fidel Castro’s regime comes crashing.

The plot also introduces us to Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), also a Cuban pilot who opts for a more adventurous entry into America. He swims through shark-infested Guantanamo Bay, ends up working with Basulto just like Rene and settles down to marry Ana (Ana de Armas).

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Much of the story pushes forward through subplots involving these characters. The locale shifts from Cuba to the US to El Salvador and, without giving away spoilers, coming into the focus soon are the Cuban Five and Gerardo Hernandez, a.k.a Manuel Viramontez (Gael Garcia Bernal) who calls the shots at the secret group Red Avispa — or the Wasp Network.

The true story of the Wasp Network and its complex espionage drama is perhaps too expansive a premise to be contained in a feature film of just about two hours. Maybe, that was the miscalculation on Assayas’s part. The automatic recall that would come to mind watching “Wasp Network” is the filmmaker’s brilliant miniseries of 2010, “Carlos”, where he cast Edgar Ramirez as Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and packed heady socio-politics in a true story of crime. Perhaps “Wasp Network” would have lost none of its sting if, like “Carlos”, its slowburn suspense drama had a wider time span for plot development, over episodes.

Despite being a rushed job of storytelling, there are the odd sequences that reveal the sheer genius we associate Assayas with. A big advantage he draws from his big cast of international stars is the assuredness with which way they realise their characters (that includes Gael Garcia Bernal as Hernandez/ Viramontez, despite the minimal footage the phenomenal actor gets to essay). Towering above all is Penelope Cruz’s Olga. The actress brings alive a performance of nuances, balancing Olga’s conflicts — torn as she is between personal ties and country.

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“Wasp Network” underwhelms. The film neither manages to score as a political manifesto, nor does it wholly regale as a spy saga. As the end credits roll, you realise the outcome was a mediocre attempt. That is despite a stellar cast and an auteur calling the shots.

“Wasp Network” (film streaming on Netflix); Cast: Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Ana de Armas, Wagner Moura; Direction: Olivier Assayas

–IANS, Vinayak Chakravorty

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