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Penélope Cruz Joins Olivier Assayas’ ‘Wasp Network’

With a cast like this, it’s hard to imagine this spy thriller being anything other than exceptional.
By  · Published on September 6th, 2018

Pinning down the filmmaking style of auteur Olivier Assayas is no mean feat. His many cinematic experiments have resulted in both polished onscreen meditations, as well as divisive and outrageous works on the flip side. The languid, contemplative expression of Personal Shopper contrasts greatly from the frenetic energy of Boarding Gate. Yet, at the heart of Assayas’ varied filmography lies a writer/director looking for fresh ways to authentically tell stories about society’s fringes.

That’s precisely part of the joy that comes with anticipating an Assayas film. The filmmaker’s penchant for character-focused narratives and archetype deconstruction makes his genre work especially appealing. I can’t wait to see what he does with his next Juliette Binoche film, Non-Fiction. Furthermore, when it was first announced that Assayas was re-teaming with Édgar Ramírez, and enlisting the inimitable talent of Pedro Pascal for his upcoming spy thriller Wasp Network, utmost elation was already a given.

According to Deadline, the rest of the Wasp Network cast just keeps the hype going strong, too. Penélope Cruz (Volver), Wagner Moura (Narcos), and Gael García Bernal (Babel) will join Ramírez and Pascal in the film. This star-studded international cast feels like the perfect ensemble to underpin such a convoluted espionage film, which will be based on Fernando Morais’ nonfiction account of the Cuban Five, “The Last Soldiers of the Cold War.”

Wasp Network will be about five Cuban spies who land on United States soil to infiltrate anti-Fidel Castro groups based in Miami after swaths of terror attacks — including bombings and shootings — have wracked Cuba. Detailing the thorny intersections of espionage, Morais’ source text particularly tracks the spies’ covert operations and the eventual revelation of their identities, and we can likely expect Assayas’ movie version to do the same.

As premature as this reaction sounds, what’s fantastic about Wasp Network is that Assayas could bring to life another one of his fascinating, pointed character dissections. The protagonists in this project, in particular, could potentially have such fluid identities simply due to their nature as moles. And of course, these agents and their affairs will also discernibly intersect with geopolitics by virtue of the story’s backdrop pertaining to Cuban-US relations.

In general, the impact of world politics and globalization has been a recurrent theme in Assayas’ work in the past. These notions have played out sporadically but explosively in projects such as Boarding Gate and Demonlover, two of Assayas’ most challenging films to digest. Such movies interweave ideas about global corporations and commodities into their extremely indulgent takes on conspiracy fiction and the techno-thriller genre, creating a multilayered — although overwhelming and elusive — viewing experience.

If we’re down to make some cross-movie comparisons to figure out what to expect from Wasp Network, its general premise and setting already more closely resembles one of Assayas’ most ambitious projects, Carlos. The globe-trotting five-and-a-half hour long biographical epic originally shot Ramírez to stardom for his role as the eponymous protagonist.

Carlos is an amalgamation of Assayas’ most striking cinematic concerns. Its global footprint alone dictates filmmaking on a grand scale. Carlos exemplifies tediousness and dedication from start to finish. It was shot on location across three continents. English is primarily spoken in the film, but French, Spanish, Hungarian, Italian, Arabic, German, Russian, Dutch, and Japanese can be heard peppered throughout. This isn’t the kind of narrative that’s easily digestible, either. At its full 338-minute runtime, Carlos is a commitment, even in an era that celebrates long-form fiction.

Thankfully, when watching Carlos, we observe and unpack the myths surrounding a fervent controversial public figure through a versatile, chameleonic performance by Ramírez. The project does a stellar job portraying a sense of self-importance and celebrity that the character pictured for himself without forgetting to depict moments of regularity and even monstrosity. As a loose character study, Carlos succeeds in its chief deconstruction of an untouchable figure as a result of its astute nature.

Hence, we already know that Assayas is wonderful with actors. I’m certain that Cruz, Moura, and García Bernal – who are all individually stunning, naturalistic performers in their own right – are primed to succeed in Wasp Network, no matter who they’re playing.

Cruz is an actress who scars. She is explosive and vindictive in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and has the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to show for it. Despite the fact that she’s not really the star of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (in which she stars with Ramírez), her transformation into Donatella Versace is aesthetically memorable.

However, it is Cruz’s work in Pedro Almodóvar films that will stand the test of time. In a 2009 interview with The New York Times, Almodóvar was quoted affirming his love for working with actresses, and declared Cruz his “muse.” It’s then no surprise that Volver and Broken Embraces provide two of her heftiest roles to date. Cruz plays Almodóvar characters with utmost warmth, purity, and heartbreak. Thus, we ought to celebrate her teaming up with someone else who is as attuned to fascinating female characters as he is, and Assayas totally fits the bill (particularly in a post-Clouds of Sils Maria world).

Meanwhile, Moura has been celebrated on TV much more, at least in comparison to his work in feature films. Considering mainstream big-screen offerings, he is best-known for appearing in Neill Blomkamp’s unfortunately subpar sci-fi action film Elysium. Blomkamp made a movie with a great cast, fun premise, and excellent production design. Regardless, Elysium ultimately suffers from a plodding execution. Moura has had better luck headlining smaller films such as Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, a Brazillian thriller seething with bleak, angry politics powerfully told through fast-paced violence.

Instead, Narcos is truly Moura’s claim to fame. He is perceptive and internal as Pablo Escobar, foregoing any expected “drug lord” stereotypes for a more considered and patient turn as the iconic, schismatic figure. The final result is an outright chilling performance. Moura’s Golden Globe nomination for playing the Colombian cartel leader was totally well-earned. I can’t wait to see what he brings to the table in Wasp Network.

And finally, we have García Bernal, whose varied filmography has ensured one thing: that he — like Cruz — is also particularly wounding and emotionally resonant in virtually any film he does. More recently, he made waves by voicing a lovely Pixar character in Coco and won a Golden Globe for his hilarious performance as an eccentric conductor in Amazon’s sadly-canceled Mozart in the Jungle.

However, films like Amores Perros, Even the Rain, and Desierto really demonstrate the kind of scattered, frenzied energy García Bernal is so good at channeling. García Bernal can convey an array of emotions and decisions with the slightest of looks. He is both an enigma and an open book, filling his characters with enough contradictory attributes to make them full-bodied. García Bernal is magnetic in jittery and intense situations just as much as he owns the quietest of dramatic moments. He’s a coup of a casting choice who’d suit a spy thriller exceptionally.

If it isn’t clear by now, any new Assayas project would typically get us pumped. So, when the filmmaker does the absolute most with casting to make sure we stay on the edge of our seats, that’s icing on the cake. Wasp Network’s ensemble keeps getting better and better, and we continue to have high hopes for the film.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)