Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Michael Angarano
Running Time: 93 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Steven Soderbergh's Haywire is both more and less than it seems. On one hand, it's an action movie. But on the other, it sort of isn't. It's a conventional spy story that's presented in an unconventional manner, exceeding and subverting expectations while strangely at the same time barely managing to meet them. A second viewing is probably in order, but with only one to go on it's safe to say it distinguishes itself from most other mainstream action movies not so much in terms of plot, but style. It feels like a not-so-distant art house cousin of Drive or The American in the sense that it'll turn off viewers expecting a fast-paced, non-stop mindless action extravaganza (its D+ CinemaScore proves it) and reward those looking for something a little different. But the real story coming out of it is the arrival of a legitimate female action star capable of believably kicking ass. Recently, we've had Angelina Jolie in Salt and Zoe Saldana in Columbiana corner the action market in terms of charisma and willingness to get their hands dirty, but in terms of pure physicality and presence, former MMA fighter and first-time actress Gina Carano puts them both to shame. And her casting that proves just how ingenious Soderbergh is in tailoring his movies to the strengths of his stars.
The film opens in a diner in upstate New York, where we meet Mallory Kane (Carano), a contracted covert operations agent with a private firm employed by the government for missions they'd rather wash their hands of. She sits with a man named Aaron (Channing Tatum) who she thrillingly kicks the crap out of over coffee, breaking his arm and escaping with the help of passing customer Scott (Michael Angarano), who has no idea what he's just gotten himself into to. In flashback, we're told the story of how she was sent by her boss and ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) to do a job in Dublin where she'd pose as the wife of a British agent named Paul (Michael Fassbender). But it's all a set-up, putting in motion a chain of events that cause her to go on the run, alternating between being the hunter and the hunted, all while trying to uncover who betrayed her and why.
Initially, the narrative framing device is confusing because it takes a bit to differentiate what's happening in the present from the flashback scenes as the title cards indicate shifts in location (Dublin, Barcelona and New York for anyone keeping track) rather than time. It's worth noting how the picture looks since it doesn't quite visually resemble any other recent action movie. The color looks washed out and the image dim and out of focus, no doubt a deliberate choice by Soderbergh who often works as his own cinematographer in his films and wanted to distinguish this from the slick blockbusters we've grown accustomed to. Once we catch up the plot is pretty basic so most of the thrills come from the style and execution. Otherwise deliberately paced, when the action scenes do arrive they're brutally realistic, especially a hotel room confrontation between Carano and Fassbender that has to rank amongst the most exciting intergender onscreen fights in recent memory. Most of the rest of the action is saved for the final half hour, but it's worth the wait.
What Soderbergh does for Carano is almost exactly what he did for adult film star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience in taking an untrained actress and placing them in a carefully structured project that plays up their strengths while covering their weaknesses. On a lesser scale it's comparable with what Darren Aronofsky did for Natalie Portman in Black Swan by not only hiding her weaknesses as actress, but actually incorporating them into her character and transforming them into strengths. Soderbergh's careful not to give Carano long monologues and dialogue-heavy scenes that would expose her inexperience, instead playing up her intensity and presence. There's no need for tons of emotion in a movie like this and he's wise to not let Carano attempt to supply any. She's a bad-ass. Plain and simple. But in instances she's called upon to do more in "acting" scenes opposite her seasoned co-stars, she still holds her own, proving she can only improve as a performer moving forward. Pretty and powerful, it's not out of the question she could emerge as a the female equivalent of Jason Statham if she attaches herself to projects that make the best use of her talents. And unlike other action heroines, the ex-American Gladiator doesn't at all look like she can be snapped like a twig.
Soderbergh cleverly plugs in his star-heavy cast in utility supporting roles with Ewan McGregor relishing the rare opportunity to play a sleaze and Michael Douglas slipping into familiar authority figure mode as a powerful government agent. Even Channing Tatum fares really well as Mallory's ex-lover and potential adversary. But the real standout is Fassbender, who in his brief, but extremely memorable turn as a suave, dangerous British agent gives just cause to terminate Daniel Craig's 007 contract after his next outing. As perfect a fit as Carano would seem to be for Wonder Woman, Fassbender is for James Bond. And since the films cover much of the same territory it also wouldn't be off base to claim that the stuck-in-a-rut Bond franchise could stand to look and feel more like this.
If there's anything holding the film back from greatness it's Lem Dobbs' script, which taken altogether seems very conventional and ordinary despite its sometimes convoluted presentation. It's a simple story told in a complicated way that succeeds in making you fell like you're watching something of considerable substance. Without Soderbergh's stylistic choices and such a believable, intimidating lead it wouldn't work at the level it does. But those elements are there and it does work because of them, making me think that once you have the story all sorted out on the first viewing, everything else will likely improve on subsequent ones. Besides marking the arrival of an exciting new action actress, it also provides a reason to re-examine just how talented a filmmaker Soderbergh is. Unlike any of his peers, he's been able to successfully alternate between low budget indie projects and mainstream blockbusters. Now with Haywire, he's proven himself capable of combining both.