‘Borgen’ Has Never Been More Relevant – Unlike ‘Top Gun’

As Tom Cruise goes back to his jet-pilot roots, TV is getting in on the act too with a fun ‘Irma Vep’ remake and return of the brilliant ‘Borgen’

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Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg in "Borgen: Power and Glory."
Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg in "Borgen: Power and Glory."Credit: Mike Kollffel / Netflix
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

When I was a student in southwest England in the mid-1980s, my friends and I had a regular cinema routine: They’d go to the local fleapit to watch the Hollywood blockbuster of the week while I’d go see something at the arthouse cinema – and then we’d meet in the pub afterward and catch up.

I can still remember meeting up with my pals in the fall of 1986 after they’d just come out of a screening of “Top Gun.” God knows what I’d seen, but it clearly wasn’t as memorable because my buddies were all annoyingly happy.

It didn’t convince me. My 19-year-old self would have rather set fire to a cinema than set foot in one to watch a movie produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (it was only years later, while reading Charles Fleming’s deeply disturbing “High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess,” that I came to realize that the movies were far from being the worst thing about Simpson, whose need for speed far outstripped that of his “Top Gun” star).

I’m strangely proud to say that I’ve never seen “Top Gun” and have zero interest, 36 years on, in seeing the sequel, “Top Gun: Maverick” – no matter how many rave reviews I read in the press or hear from friends.

Tom Cruise in "Top Gun: Maverick."Credit: Paramount Pictures / Skydance

I’ve found the media responses to “Maverick” particularly interesting. What happened in the intervening 35-odd years to turn a brainless blockbuster into a beloved cultural icon? Critics hated “Top Gun” with a passion back in 1986: “Revved-up but empty.” “Truly absurd.” “Fast-paced, loud and very irritating.” “The most expensive, most opulent Navy recruiting film ever made” – and these were just the quotes they were able to put on the film poster (add your own winking face emoji here).

Now compare that to its sequel’s reception in 2022, where it has a 97-percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (99 percent among the public), Tom Cruise is being feted as the savior of cinema, and critics are falling over themselves to praise a plot that sounds like a Republican’s wet dream.

Is the passage of time really so forgiving? And if so, should we start bracing for “Lethal Weapon 5” sometime in the next year or two? Or, while we have the unsavory thought of Mel Gibson in our minds, “Tequila Sunrise 2”?

Maybe it’s a sign that Generation X is holding the purse strings in Hollywood these days that such a deeply ’80s brand as “Top Gun” can get remade now. To put the age of the original into context, Elon Musk was 15 at the time of its release and people still wore United Colors of Benetton.

Other than the sequel being a colossal hit, perhaps the biggest surprise is that “Top Gun” wasn’t stripped down to its constituent parts and reworked for TV – which has been the prevalent trend over the past decade, as witnessed by series as diverse as “Westworld,” “Fargo,” “Cobra Kai,” “Bates Motel,” “Chucky,” “12 Monkeys,” “Scream the TV Series” and, um, “Turner & Hooch.”

And if you think a Tom Hanks flop about a cop and police dog is an odd choice for a TV remake, wait till you see what’s coming up: “Willow,” “True Lies,” “A League of their Own” and – lock up your bunnies alert – “Fatal Attraction.” I’d bet good stolen money that if the latter’s a hit, it’s only a matter of time before Gordon Gekko of “Wall Street” infamy gets his own series too.

‘Irma Vep’ (HBO)

Yet as strange as some of these creative choices might appear (“Fatal Attraction”? Really?), they would all have appeared above “Irma Vep” in a list I might have written of films likely to be turned into TV series.

And yet here we are with a new, relatively high-profile HBO adaptation of French director Olivier Assayas’ scrappy 1996 original. I’ve seen four of the eight episodes of the Paris-set TV series, and I actually find the remake/reimagining superior, funnier and more engaging than the movie.

There’s a big question posed by Zoe the costume designer in the 1996 original that also hangs over Assayas’ new version: “Why do we do what’s already been done? Why don’t we do more personal films?”

Well, I’m sure the answer Assayas might proffer is that this subject matter is personal to him. It allows him to explore the creative process and examine how one person’s “vision” must pass through so many other hands before it reaches our screens.

The art of collaboration is as much under the spotlight as the art itself, though there’s also a cynical eye being cast on why we even make anything nowadays – for art’s sake, or merely as a means of maintaining the profile of a Hollywood star who’s the face of a particular brand we own?

The basic plots in the film and TV series are similar: An overseas female star has been hired to star in a remake of “Les Vampires,” a 1915 French film series directed by Louis Feuillade about a gang of master criminals known as “the Vampires.” The silent series starred legendary French actress Musidora as anagrammatic heroine Irma Vep.

The original film starred Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung, but while she isn’t in the remake, her spirit certainly is. Cheung and Assayas were a real-life couple for several years after the film, and Assayas isn’t about to ignore that as part of an apparent desire to pursue his demons.

The TV version of “Irma Vep” is a multilayered show that is as much about the 1996 version also made by our fictional director René Vidal (played here by Vincent Macaigne) as it is about a remake of the 1915 film series. The bearded and befuddled René may well have you wondering what the French is for “asshat,” yet there’s something likable about this middle-aged artist who has long since lost his creative spark, and knows it.

Director René (Vincent Macaigne) and actress Mira (Alicia Vikander) in a scene from "Irma Vep."Credit: Carole Bethuel/HBO / Yes

At the heart of it all, though, is Alicia Vikander as young American star Mira Harberg, fresh from a Hollywood smash in the shape of a dreadful-sounding sci-fi blockbuster called “Doomsday.” She’s arrived in Paris to play the iconic role of Irma, who might best be described as Chat Woman if DC Comics weren’t so litigious. (We see plenty of actual scenes from the original 1915 series and its new remake, which Vidal is turning into a TV series that’s very faithful to the original – which constantly begs the question of the viewer: why?)

Vikander is a magnetic presence, playing a free-spirited Hollywood actress with a colorful love life – and who, I am sure, is completely unconnected to Kristen Stewart, who starred in Assayas’ previous films “Personal Shopper” (2016) and “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014).

There are plenty of jokes at the expense of the acting profession, and at its best “Irma Vep” reminded me of the irresistible tartness of classic French comedy “Call My Agent!” (whose U.K. remake I’ll be reviewing in a few weeks). It’s also a bit scattershot at times, though, and I’ll be interested to see how the TV version handles the final act (I had problems with the conclusion of the 1996 version, which felt rushed and messy to these eyes).

As well as “Irma Vep,” another anagram you can get from “vampire” is “I revamp.” Assayas has certainly had fun revisiting his old film, and I’m sure viewers looking for a light summer amuse-bouche will too.

A scene from season 1 of "Irma Vep," starring Alicia Vikander as a Hollywood actress who is definitely not based on Kristen Stewart.Credit: Carole Bethuel/HBO / Yes

‘Borgen’ (Netflix)

I could be accused of burying the lede in this column, given that last week saw the return of “Borgen.” Netflix has revived the Danish political drama after almost a decade away from our screens, and I’m delighted to report that the eight-part season 4 is the equal of any of its predecessors.

Netflix is actually billing this as season 1 of the rather bombastic-sounding “Borgen: Power and Glory.” And while I’m sure you can dive straight into the show here and thoroughly enjoy it, knowing the backstories of the key characters, and how they all intertwine, obviously gives you even greater satisfaction.

“Borgen” was one of the three shows that put Danish television on the map a decade or so ago, the others being “The Killing” and “The Bridge” (the latter a Danish-Swedish co-production). It’s interesting to note that the latter two both spawned high-profile remakes – indeed, “The Bridge” has been remade at least four times to date – yet “Borgen,” about Denmark’s first female prime minister, remains unique and very much one of a kind (unless you think the Danish Broadcasting Corporation should be contacting CBS about copyright infringement with “Madam Secretary”).

Then again, you could argue that the series’ reach has been even greater than its rivals’ given the number of female leaders you can now find in northern Europe, from Finland down to the Baltic states. I call these young politicians the Stepførd Wives – not because they’re creepy, but the exact opposite: They just seem too good to be true, especially when you compare them to many of their stale and seedy equivalents in the world.

Anyway, back to fictional politics, which I always find the most preferable kind. Watching “Borgen,” you are able to luxuriate in a program that is “adult” in the best sense of the world: grown-up, smart, challenging – all while handling real-life issues such as climate change, colonialism and how many shirts you need a day when you’re going through perimenopause. I’m halfway through – the series, not perimenopause – and, honestly, I don’t want it to end.

In many ways, this feels like that rarest of reunions: one you actually enjoy. It’s such a joy to see these beloved characters a decade on – some in the same job, others in new roles and some – like Sidse Babett Knudsen’s Birgitte Nyborg, now serving as Denmark’s foreign minister – facing new challenges, both professionally and privately.

A scene from "Borgen: Power and Glory" on Netflix.Credit: Mike Kollffel / Netflix

Like some fictional form of Michael Apted’s classic “7-Up” documentary series, I could happily keep revisiting all of these characters and catching up with them throughout their lives. If, however, this is the last we see of Birgitte and Co., then tak for the memories, as they no doubt say in Copenhagen.

“Irma Vep” is on Hot and Yes VOD, Cellcom tv, Next TV and Sting TV from Tuesday June 7, and Hot HBO from Sunday June 12 at 10 P.M. “Borgen: Power and Glory” is out now on Netflix.־

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