Audiences will absolutely watch the likes of Charlize Theron and Idris Elba as action heroes. But they just aren’t willing to pay for it.
Contrary to what you might see in the British tabloids, Tom Hardy has not been cast, and probably will not be cast, as the next James Bond once Daniel Craig vacates the role upon the release of No Time to Die. We’ve had five years (!) of this madness, with every vaguely recognizable name thrown about, from Henry Cavill (who has already played Superman, Sherlock Holmes and Napoleon Solo) to Cillian Murphy to, yes, the old favorite Idris Elba. Elba has been so feverishly fan-casted that folks have gotten into hot water merely for arguing that he wouldn’t be their personal choice. The British actor is 48 years old, so that window has closed. Ironically, Netflix’s NFLX most-watched movie today, The Take, is the closest thing we may get to seeing Elba starring in a 007 actioner.
Produced for $4 million and grossing around $14 million worldwide, The Take (titled Bastille Day in some territories) has earned just $50,269 in domestic theaters. To be fair, the film was scheduled to open in the United Kingdom on February 19, 2016 but was delayed following terrorist attacks in Paris in November of 2015. Bastille Day was released in United Kingdom, Ireland and Sweden on April 22, 2016. It opened in France on July 13, 2016. However, it was pulled from theaters days later following the 2016 Nice truck attack. So while the film’s mediocre theatrical performance is as much about poor timing as audience interest, it’s certainly not a lump sum that generates a sequel. I can’t speak to its VOD performance, which is where I first saw it via a $7 Amazon AMZN rental in 2017.
Produced by Studio Canal, it’s a France-set action thriller about an American pickpocket (Richard Madden) who steals a backpack which (unbeknownst to him) contains a bomb which was intended to go off in an empty building. Alas, he dumps it in the trash, and it explodes, killing four bystanders. This sets off a swift pursuit as the French police have to deal with both the terrorist attack and resulting anti-Islamic sentiment that threatens to spill over into riots. Only CIA agent Sean Briar (Elba) can save the day. If you’ve seen any European action movie from the last 15 years (save for maybe the Taken trilogy), you’ll know that all is now what it seems and that the folks charged with protecting us may have an alternate agenda that clashes with their duty.
For the record, Elba is not (exactly) playing a 007-type spy. He spends most of the movie in casual wear and forgoes fancy gadgets or casual sex. Director James Watkins’ 90-minute thriller is all business, as Briar uses his cunning and his “justice > the rules” mentality to sort out what happened versus what was supposed to happen. It’s a Luc Besson-style action movie, and it reminded me quite a bit of Pierre Morel’s From Paris With Love albeit with a more grounded scale and less winking camp. Absent the ironic casting, it’s a solid, run-of-the-mill European action thriller that frankly would be at home as a Lionsgate Premiere/Netflix casual viewing title. So in that skewed sense, that it’s now a triumph of the “wait for Netflix” mentality is oddly and, yes, tragically, fitting.
Regular readers will know that I tend to roll my eyes at the constant fan-casting of “not a white guy” actors to play various pop culture icons. The reasons are that A) it perpetuates the notion that white male heroes are automatically a bigger deal than non-white and non-male heroes and B) moviegoers have a nasty habit of ignoring new or original movies featuring lady spies and/or minority action heroes. We say we want a female Indiana Jones, but we ignore Alicia Vikander’s Tomb Raider. We say we want a lady Bond, but we ignore Blake Lively’s The Rhythm Section (which was produced by the Broccolis) and/or Charlize Theron’s dynamite spy thriller Atomic Blonde. Theatrical consumers only crave diversity and inclusivity in movies, usually starring marquee characters, that they were already going to see.
If the general public was more willing spend money on the diversive/inclusive movies and TV shows they claim to want, we wouldn’t need to gender or race-swap James Bond or Superman, because we’d be getting new characters from new source material (or wholly original screenplays) which would position more inclusive heroes and villains at the heart of our pop culture radar. We’d have new movies, new stories and new characters, as opposed to constantly recycling the oldest stuff and then spending much of the movie attempting to update or apologize for outdated social attitudes prevalent in the source material. You wouldn’t need to make sure Legend of Tarzan was retroactively “woke.” You wouldn’t need to spend $144 million on a female Ghostbusters movie, you could just take those same actors and spend $90 million ripping off Ghostbusters instead.
Yes, sometimes that cultural update approach can be interesting (Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger uses the nostalgic property as a Trojan horse for a piercingly critical look at America’s blood-soaked legacy). Heck, I’ve even argued that going non-white for the next James Bond would be a good way to get away from the self-criticism and self-commentary that has defined the franchise since GoldenEye in 1995. Nonetheless, if more audiences were less obsessed with IP and marquee characters, you could just cast Idris Elba in a spy movie and call it a day. And, yeah, The Take is exactly that, even if nobody saw the damn thing. That it’s now Netflix’s top movie for the day is a kind of grim irony on which I couldn’t not comment upon.
We’re never going to see Idris Elba as James Bond, unless it’s for a video game or a commercial, but that doesn’t mean there are no movies in which Elba gets to play in the 007 sandbox. Heck, I’m pretty sure No Time to Die won’t feature a closing credits song rapped by its top-billed star, so Bastille Day has that going for it. That The Take is the top movie on Netflix at the moment, meaning it is likely the most-watched movie in America, means that there is a market for a movie starring Idris Elba playing in the James Bond sandbox. The success of The Old Guard shows that there is a huge audience of folks wanting to see Charlize Theron as an action hero/superhero. But that audience just isn’t willing to pay for it.