Thursday, January 26, 2012
With flat, dark eyes that project about as much emotion as the chunks of onyx they resemble, mixed martial arts (MMA) star Gina Carano is not quite ready for her closeups in Haywire. She also seems a little uncomfortable in the dresses her character has to keep putting on to disguise herself, as stiffly self-conscious as a little girl playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes, and to add insult to injury, director-cinematographer-editor Steven Soderbergh had to digitally manipulate her voice in post-production to achieve the cool confidence he was after. But Carano relaxes in action, owning the screen in the medium and long shots that focus on not just how good her banging body looks but how well it moves.
Soderbergh built this film around Carano (with the help of screenwriter Lem Dobbs) after seeing her MMA cage fighting, in much the same way that he created The Girlfriend Experience for porn star Sasha Grey. The chilly super-competence of these post-feminist heroines is a good fit for Soderbergh’s cool, controlled style, and their slightly unconventional routes to success resonate with his ethos as a filmmaker.
Casting a female lead in an action/revenge movie has gotten too common to win a director automatic cool points (think Angelina Jolie in Salt, Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and little Chloë Moretz in Kick-Ass and Let Me In, just for starters). But Soderbergh likes to juice up familiar film tropes, changing them just enough to carve out his own mini-niche within a niche. In 1999, he and Dobbs collaborated on The Limey, a tasty little addition to the action/revenge canon. This time around, they venture a bit further, staking out “an aspect of action that really hasn’t been explored: a realistic female-driven espionage film,” as costar Channing Tatum puts it in the press notes.
Carano’s Mallory Kane is an undercover special ops agent working for a private company that contracts with the government to do dangerous jobs. (I guess everything really is getting outsourced these days.) After an opening scene in a diner that ends with her beating the crap out of Tatum, Mallory peels out in the car of a wide-eyed bystander named Scott (Michael Angarano). And we’re off, following her as she figures out who’s after her and why—and gets them all before they can get her.
Scott is the audience surrogate, the guy who asks questions that trigger a few expository speeches (mercifully short) and explanatory flashbacks. He’s also the weakest link in a glittery chain of supporting characters that includes Ewan McGregor as Mallory’s rabbity boss and ex-lover, Bill Paxton as her stoically supportive dad, Michael Fassbender (whose fighting looks surprisingly plausible) as a fellow agent she’s temporarily paired with, and Michael Douglas as a slick government operative with a hidden agenda. Well, Tatum is a little out of his league here too, but he and the similarly stony Carano are nicely matched as former colleagues and lovers who are now foes—or are they?
Carano’s Steve McQueen-style cool gives the film a retro feel, her flat affect broken only by the occasional annoyed-looking grimace. She’s voluptuous in an old-school way too, all Marilyn Monroe-style curves with no muscle ripples showing, despite her obvious power and agility.
Running after a bad guy at full speed, kicking and punching her way out of a jam, or sailing from one rooftop to the next as the SWAT team on her trail rushes into a building below in futile pursuit, Carano is beautiful to watch in action. Soderbergh shoots all the fights and chases full-frame, without the smokescreen of quick cuts or shaky shots. That makes the action feel pretty real, although Mallory seems impervious to pain, shrugging off a gunshot wound in her arm and showing just the faintest hint of bruising after her face has been pounded into several walls. Then again, killing a man with her thighs does put some nasty runs in her pantyhose.
Other technical details are handled with as much intelligence and skill as the fight scenes. True to its form, Haywire jumps from one glamorous location to another, and Soderbergh shoots them all beautifully, giving each place a distinctive color palette and feel. Mallory’s father’s spectacular glass-walled mountain home is particularly gorgeous, looking like something out of House Beautiful until it turns more Guns and Ammo. And Soderbergh’s sparing use of David Holmes’ urgent music makes it that much more effective, while the excellent sound design helps build a sense of tension and focus our attention where the director wants it. When her boss visits Mallory at home, for instance, catching her in her bathrobe, the thud of her bare feet on the floor as she strides across her living room undercuts any fears we might have had about her vulnerability.
Little bursts of black humor relieve the tension, most of them springing, as in Soderbergh’s The Infomant!, from the shock of the unexpected. Like almost everything else in this masterfully made B movie, the laughs are a fleeting pleasure, but a genuine one.
Written for TimeOff