'Wasp Network' Review: Even Recut, It's Still A Clunker [NYFF]

French maestro Olivier Assayas did not cement his status as a cinephile favorite over the last quarter-century through the mechanics of his film's plots. Rather, he's become a festival darling because of the singular sensation left lingering from watching his work. What happens in an Assayas film is never as important as how it happens – the technique, the intellection, the panache.

Assayas must have had his reasons for taking on a project like Wasp Network, a tale of espionage and counterterrorism. Whatever they were, however, do not come through clearly. The film offers few pleasures beyond the crossing of wires in its tale of tangled alliances in post-Cold War Cuba. Assayas becomes so subservient to the sheer volume of events and information he must bring to life that the film completely subsumes any sense of personal style or voice. The producers could have put any workman studio director's name over the closing credits, and I would not have bat an eyelid.

A lot happens in Wasp Network, and though the film all ends up making sense by the end, it's a winding and needlessly complex road to get there. Pilot René Gonzalez (Édgar Ramírez) escapes from Havana to Miami in 1990, seemingly to join the growing ranks of Cubans fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro. Two years later, Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura) does the same. The movie plods along for a good while leaving us with the assumption that it's going to be about their life in exile and whether they choose to "deliver pizzas or strike it rich" after their defection, as one character lays out the binary for them. The women of the film, particularly a fiery Ana de Armas as Juan Pablo's wife Ana Margarita, help give this section some spark even as the ultimate direction seems unclear.

Then, Assayas pivots out of nowhere on a dime to a section that reverses everything that came before. In a sequence introducing Gael García Bernal's Gerardo Hernandez and the titular "Wasp Network," he reveals that René and Juan Pablo are deep undercover as pro-Cuban spies meant to stop terrorist attacks against their homeland. This extended section pulling the rug out from underneath the audience relies heavily on expository dialogue and voiceover to convey the big shift. It's obvious in the extreme and remarkably unimaginative for a director who knows how to guide viewers towards a realization without spoon-feeding it to them.

From there, Assayas stages some impressive action pieces as René and Juan Pablo's missions become more transparent, in particular a rebel airplane flyover that the Cuban air force stops with a show of force – and one series of hotel bombings that gets past the Wasp Network's detection. But Assayas' script is too scattered and erratic to build up much momentum in the narrative or feeling at all for the characters. By the time the so-called "Cuban Five" (a quintet among Wasp Network that includes the two leading men) gets arrested in 1998, it's not exactly clear what the audience should feel. I, for one, felt practically nothing at all, even as Penélope Cruz's Olga Gonzalez grapples with weighty matters of loyalty to country.

With the exception of scoring some political points at the expense of American hypocrisy, courtesy of a Fidel Castro archival interview, it's unclear what exactly Assayas is going for by the end in Wasp Network. Was it just for this anti-imperialist stinger at the end? If so, then he probably should have seeded the message a little bit more throughout. Was it just to tell this story? If so, alright, a little out of character and very unexpected. Was it to push himself by shooting a tense thriller in a tough locale? If so, Assayas deserves credit for wanting to shoot the film in Cuba to bring authenticity to the project, but that cannot excuse how dull the finished product is. The complexity of a film's production and logistics, frankly, matter little when it comes to evaluating it.

Assayas recut Wasp Network between its world premiere at Venice and when I saw it at NYFF; according to a Deadline report, he made tweaks primarily for clarity in the back half of the film. I can't speak entirely to the effect of the change since I did not see the original version. But I can confidently say that while the additional clarification does make Wasp Network intelligible, we should expect more from an Olivier Assayas film than the bare minimum.

/Film rating: 5 out of 10