It’s one of the most frustrating cycles of the movie business: a visionary filmmaker bursts onto the scene with a singular approach, only to get snatched up by the studio machinery and homogenized by its gears. Look no further than the struggles of the “Star Wars” movies, where directors ranging from Gareth Edwards to Phil Lord and Chris Miller collided with the demands of the folks upstairs. More recently, Marvel Studios found luck in luring beloved directors like Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi away from more original projects to play in the studio realm with productive results. But in all of those cases, the risk was immense on both ends — for directors with immaculate track records, and for studios with the power to destroy careers.
Not so with the news that Cary Joji Fukunaga will become the first American director to join the James Bond franchise. Fukunaga has never made an obvious blockbuster, but he’s been steadily flexing the muscles required for a brainy action-adventure over the course of a trailblazing decade-long career.
His breakout debut “Sin Nombre” was a gritty immigration drama about a pair of young Hondurans on the lam from bloodthirsty gang lords in an attempt to cross the U.S. border, but Fukunaga found a way to transform the dark material into a bracing action-adventure, using guerrilla filmmaking methods to shoot a dynamic train sequence as fast-paced and suspenseful as anything possible on a larger budget. With his stylized adaptation of “Jane Eyre,” he took a breather to show his range, tackling the terrain of a classic moody romance with similar élan. With those two features alone, the filmmaker had already shown his capacity to juggle the unique formula that has sustained the Bond franchise across 65 years: tough, visceral action against diverse backdrops, balanced off with sleek romanticism.
“Sin Nombre” was released in 2009, the same year another emerging young director, Marc Webb, made his feature debut with “(500) Days of Summer.” Two years later, Fukunaga released “Jane Eyre,” while Webb was snatched up to make his sophomore feature with “Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel: This quickly stalled his career. Similarly, Colin Treverrow made his debut in 2012 with “Safety Not Guaranteed” and was then hired to make “Jurassic World.” With no gestation period, both directors never got the chance to develop their cinematic aesthetics before loaning them out to big commercial enterprises, and we may never know exactly how their voices would have developed — but Fukunaga’s had plenty of time to let it settle.
After “Jane Eyre,” he delivered a one-two punch that solidified his credentials in a uniquely 21st century fashion: His tense war epic “Beasts of No Nation,” set in a fictional African country and tracking the experiences of a young boy brainwashed into fighting a civil war by an oppressive warlord (Idris Elba, a compelling James Bond candidate for many), marked the first original film production by Netflix. The release plan didn’t pan out so well, with the movie tanking in theaters and buried on the platform, but it nevertheless showed the filmmaker’s capacity to develop riveting material out of a grim subject matter without simplifying it. Within the same tight window, Fukunaga also directed the first — and, so far, only respectable — season of “True Detective,” uniting Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in a swampy noir laced with magical realism and taut melodrama in equal measures.
To some degree, Fukunaga has spent a decade auditioning for the sprawling pressures of the Bond franchise, in addition to its style. As David Ehrlich pointed out in these parts not long ago, Danny Boyle (who was previously set to direct the series’ 25th installment before dropping out) never quite gelled with the distinctive rhythms that have made Bond such an indelible cultural entity: Boyle’s jittery narrative techniques are a world apart from the sleek textures of the best Bond adventures, as well as the cool-as-a-cucumber mannerisms of the character himself. Fukunaga, on the other hand, dwells in such places — and if he must tackle a studio property, James Bond makes a lot more sense than “It,” the Warner Bros. horror production he abandoned after clashing with the higher-ups. Fukunaga may know how to turn up the scares, but he’s on steadier footing with a project that welcomes a fun, visually sophisticated approach in service of more intimate character-based dilemmas.
Michele K. Short / Netflix
His latest serialized effort, “Maniac” — which hits Netflix September 21 — cements this potential: The loopy sci-fi drama stars Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in a psychedelic story of body-switching that’s simultaneously futuristic and retro. Set in an imaginary world where a kooky scientist (Justin Thereoux) invents a technology for pill-popping that has some very shocking side effects, the Patrick Somerville-scripted show dances the line between style and substance in its first episodes with a fascinating degree of confidence in the material: “Mr. Robot” by way of “Trading Places,” it manages to approach mental illness with an air of gravitas even as it delivers a fast-paced genre pastiche. At the age of 41, Fukunaga’s at the perfect stage of his career to bring his talents to an existing property without operating under the assumption that the studio will bend to his will.
At least, that’s the hope. The news arrives one day after a far more shocking revelation about a filmmaker moving into the studio ranks: a new “Space Jam” movie, starring LeBron James, produced by Coogler, and directed by Terence Nance. The experimental genius behind HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness” has developed his remarkable ability to inject serious ideas about race and society into a wacky, discursive late-night television program, but nothing in his microbudget debut “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” makes it clear that he could deliver a colorful big-budget kids movie with basketball stars and Looney Tunes characters.
But Coogler, riding high on the global success of “Black Panther,” understands that the expectations for the property matter less than a filmmaker’s capacity to inject it with new life. As a whole, Hollywood seems to be waking up to the idea that even a commercial franchise needs to gel with the artistic aspirations behind the camera. In Fukunaga’s case, the match couldn’t be clearer.
Of course, MGM has missed the opportunity to open the doors for a woman, or a person of color, at a time when demand for hiring underrepresented voices has reached an all-time high. Fukunaga, however, does hail from a complex background: the son of a Japanese man born into an internment camp and a Swedish-American, he grew up around stepparents with Argentinean and Mexican heritages; over the course of his career, he’s lived in France, Japan, Mexico, and London. The Bond franchise calls for a similarly worldly mindset, and if it was going to fall to an American, better that it’s one who knows about the bigger picture. In sharply partisan times, James Bond is a global figure who belongs to all of us.