'November Man' and the pull of the 'old school'

For Hollywood, the pull of the 'old school' seems stronger than ever

You could say many things about Pierce Brosnan’s return to the spy game, “The November Man” – and critics did, most of them not too kind. But one thing everyone can agree on is that the movie is, in nearly every way, old school. From the cat-and-mouse action set pieces to the sinister Russian villain to the presence of the former 007 himself, “The November Man” is a contemporary analogue to a type of espionage thriller that was standard fare at the multiplexes in the 1970s and ’80s – and it wears that throwback quality on its sleeve, for better or worse.

“I’m old school,” Brosnan told The Times days before the movie opened. “There’s no getting around it.”

He’s hardly alone. Hollywood likes to represent itself as being all about delivering the shock of the new: the newest talent, the newest technology, the newest forms of storytelling. But as much as anything else, the movie industry has always been a vast, complex machine for recycling nostalgia for the pop culture of yesteryear into the pop culture of tomorrow. 

These days, as directors, writers, and studio executives reared in a pre-digital era look back fondly on the ostensibly simpler analog world of their youth – a world of Muppets, vinyl records, and mindless action movies with muscle-bound heroes – that tug of nostalgia is stronger than it's ever been. If an actor or filmmaker wants a quick shortcut to instant credibility, it never hurts to say you're working on something “old school.”

“Neighbors” was a new twist on the old-school frat movie (as was “Old School,” for that matter). “Godzilla” was a throwback to the Toho movies of the 1950s and ’60s gussied up in modern CGI garb. “Guardians of the Galaxy” seasoned a futuristic space opera with an old-school soundtrack composed of 1960s and ’70s AM-radio deep cuts. And the cast list of “The Expendables 3” was the very definition of old school – indeed, that’s the whole point of the franchise, inasmuch as it has one.

This month will see the release of the old-school crime drama “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” a throwback to the gritty, urban Alan Pakula and Don Siegel movies of the 1970s; the old-school thriller “The Guest,” a stylish genre exercise that pays homage to “The Terminator” and vintage John Carpenter horror movies; and the old-school family dramedy “This is Where I Leave You,” a spiritual descendant of James L. Brooks films like “Terms of Endearment."

Meanwhile, Rian Johnson, who has signed on to direct “Star Wars: Episode VIII,” recently reassured fans that he will keep things old-school with the film, forgoing excessive CGI for oldfangled practical effects, and director George Miller made a similar promise at this year's Comic-Con regarding next summer's "Mad Max: Fury Road."

“I think people are coming back around to [practical effects],” Johnson said. “It feels like there is sort of that gravity pulling us back toward it. I think that more and more people are hitting kind of a critical mass in terms of the CG-driven action scene.... I probably sound like a grumpy old man talking about it. I don’t know whether it’s a generational thing.”

It may well be a generational thing – and therein lies both the appeal and the peril of going old-school. There are few things more subjective than nostalgia. Something that triggers a flood of Proustian memories in one person can seem merely fuddy-duddy-ish to someone else.

For me, it might be the moment in “Guardians of the Galaxy” when Chris Pratt breaks out in the 1970 soul classic “Ooh Child." For you, it might be the moment in “Jersey Boys” when John Lloyd Young, as Frankie Valli, croons “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”

If you didn’t grow up with Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, the prospect of seeing the actor return to the spy genre in “The November Man” may have been a big double-oh-“who cares” – hence the movie’s underwhelming sixth-place opening. But if that’s the case, don’t worry. Old school is an endlessly renewable resource, and if you stick around long enough, whatever makes you wistful for your own personal cinema paradiso of yore is bound to come around again. 

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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