Friday, August 29, 2014

The November Man, starring Pierce Brosnan as Not James Bond

I suspect that if you looked at the filmographies of the other actors who played James Bond, you'd find a much higher ratio of "parts which play off having played James Bond" to "time spent playing James Bond" than Pierce Brosnan has. George Lazenby practically makes that a division by zero error, after all. It doesn't seem that way, though - this really seems to be Brosnan's thing, enough that when I started seeing posters for The November Man, my first thought was "again?", which by a strictly numeric perspective was kind of unfair.

Part of it, I think, is timing. Brosnan being replaced in the role coincides fairly well with the big rise in populist movie criticism that blogging, podcasting, and the like made possible. There are a lot of us (you are reading the scribblings of a database developer with spare time, after all) writing about pop culture that would like some hits, which has us writing about material less highbrow than would have made it into film criticism journals back when print was king, and both the writers' and readers' tastes are much more mainstream, and as hobbyists, we're not doing a while lot to educate ourselves on what happened before we were born/watching movies, especially if we went to school to study computers rather than film and/or writing.

That said, I do think that more people spending more time writing about movies, and reading about the ones they love, has made some smarter, more thoughtful movie fans and changed the way studios make movies, at least a little. In decades past, a producer wanting to make The November Man a box-office hit might have shied away from Brosnan, not wanting to confuse the mainstream audience; now they figure that there are viewers for whom this subversion is a selling point, and a cottage industry of folks willing to explain why it's cool to whoever might have been confused.

On other hand, Brosnan's position among the actors to play the role is unique. Sean Connery originated the role, and to a large extent, it is what he made it. Connery subverting expectations would almost have been dishonest and a betrayal, like there was nothing genuine to the part in the first place. Besides, Bond made Sean Connery into SEAN CONNERY, a superstar whose own image was as big as that of the character, and just as much a topic of any subtext.

After that, you have George Lazenby, who does a straight-faced wink at the audience in his first scene and is basically a stand-in. It's unfair, as he made one of the best movies of the series which could have had an impact on the character, but his one-off-ness and sparse later career makes him and On Her Majesty's Secret Service something to be referenced, not commented upon.

As for Roger Moore - well, he's not James Bond. I jest, a bit, as I've been a bit outspoken about not caring for him in the role, but for a while, he was as much The Saint as Bond, and when memory of that TV series faded, his Bond became such an outlier compared to the less campy takes on either side. Him referencing his time as Bond feels second-hand, a spoof of a spoof, and he even described it in those terms himself. Plus, he aged out of playing Bond-like characters rather quickly, it seems.

Timothy Dalton's an interesting case, because his tenure was short and undeservedly unpopular, and I think it took some time for him to be appreciated, and by the time he was, he'd aged out of Bond-ish roles himself and gained a somewhat separate fandom for material like Flash Gordon and The Rocketeer which are rather different from his cool take on 007. So when he does up on Chuck in a Bond-derived role, it's as much about how Timothy Dalton is funny and makes everything better as playing against type.

Brosnan, though, is an interesting case in that his emergence in the part came after enough of a period of inactivity that he could be James Bond to a new generation, defining it without being seen as a reaction to what came before in a way that Lazenby, Moore, and Dalton couldn't, but not winding up bigger than the role like Connery (the same applies to Daniel Craig, but it's early to talk about his legacy). circumstances had him being compared and contrasted to Bond before he ever dawned the tux, as he was originally expected to take the part for The Living Daylights, but was under contract to NBC, making Remington Steele arguably his first meta-Bond.

I think he's got more of a bone to pick with the part, though. I'm not a particular fan of his run, but he's got some great moments in them that suggest he would really have liked to get Daniel Craig's scripts; if memory serves me, he tended to play the part ever-straighter as the movies got more ridiculous. He actually did The Tailor of Panama, a John le Carré spy story, before he was done playing Bond, and there were persistent [overblown] rumors that he and Quentin Tarantino would do a by-the-book adaptation of Casino Royale before MGM locked down the rights. He eventually did The Matador and now this.

So, why is all this prologue worth talking about? Basically, because The November Man does serve as sort of a response to the Bond series, especially as they were when Brosnan was in the lead. His tenure lasted roughly from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11, so while his movies were more serious in time than some of what came before, it was a matter of taste. Espionage movies were escapist and abstract, with terrorism a local problem rather than a global one, and the Tom Clancy stuff we saw on TV during the gulf war seeming cool. Everything else was bubbling up under the surface, but we didn't see it.

Even by the end of the century, perceptions were starting to change - real spies were not nearly so capable as 007, apparently, nor nearly as gentlemanly. And while Devereaux is still quite the super-spy, he's ever trait we may not like about James Bond turned up to 11 - dismissive, cruel, willing to use his license to kill indiscriminately - close to a psychopath let loose on the world. And he knows it -


When administering the coup de grace, he isn't taking about ethics, doing things the right way and avoiding the death of innocent people. He's protecting the world he knows and understands, even if it is a screwed-up system teetering on the brink. There's no place for him in a peaceful world, or even one like the religiously-aligned conflict the villain describes.


It's an impressively cynical take on the genre, and probably nearly as far from Bill Granger's series as it is from Bond. But it's at least executed well-enough, despite its rough patches, that I wouldn't mind seeing another, especially if they keep this one's time.

The November Man

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 August 2014 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

The November Man is, at times, an impressively taut spy thriller, clearly owing a debt to James Bond even if you put star Pierce Brosnan aside, though it plays up the murky, cynical aspects much better. But while it's pretty good, it's also a movie where the title can seem unclear even after someone has a line that starts with "we called you 'the November man' because". The filmmakers tends to use ambiguity for good more often than bad, and that's the line between an enjoyably nasty thriller and a potential classic of the genre.

Five years ago, CIA operative Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) retired after after an operation he and protege Mason (Luke Bracey) carried out had an ugly ending despite being technically successful. There's always one last job, though, and in this case it's extracting Natalia Ulanova (Mediha Musliovic), a source he developed in Moscow years ago who has explosive information on Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), expected to be the next president of Russia, at the behest of old friend Hanley (Bill Smitrovich). The operation is another mess, and soon Devereaux is back in Belgrade with Mason hunting him on behalf of sinister CIA official Perry Weinstein (Will Patton), Federov's assassin Alexa (Amila Terzimehic) trying to erase everyone who knows the details of his past, and everybody trying to get local caseworker Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko) to help find Mira Filipova (Nina Mrdja), the Chechen refugee who can burst everything wide open.

It's not the most complex spy story ever seen, but it is one with a lot of elements in play, so it's genuinely impressive how well director Roger Donaldson and the writers tell the story via action. That doesn't necessarily always mean violence or that people never talk to each other, but Donaldson and company seldom stop the characters actually doing things to stage a fight that's all spectacle or explain the situation to the audience. Everyone's skills, attitudes, and next steps are easy to pick up from what they're doing and how. It's something very gratifying to see in an action movie, and even when a scene is just people talking, there's push and pull so that there's still a feeling of motion. There aren't necessarily a lot of show-stopping "this must have been an expensive logistical nightmare to film" scenes, but there is a steady stream of God chases and shootouts, enough to say something about Devereaux and Mason.

Full review at EFC

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