Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grudge Match

I don't know if she can act--on the evidence of Haywire (2012, directed by Steven Soderbergh), the jury is still out--but that may not make a difference for Gina Carano, who comes to the movies from the world of mixed martial arts. She reminds me a bit of Arnold Schwarzenegger, to tell the truth. Nobody ever accused Arnold of being an actor, but he WAS a star and with good reason. I think Carano might have that same star quality. When, at the end of Haywire, she drops in on the film's hidden bad guy with her hair tightly braided against her head and her posture ready to kick some unholy ass, all I could think was, "Sign that woman to play Wonder Woman, pronto." When she's on screen, my eye is drawn to her. That's a start.

The plot? Well, you've seen this plot before. It's a conflation of Point Blank and L.A. Confidential, in which black ops badass Mallory Kane (Carano) is betrayed by her superiors. After dodging several assassination attempts, she takes the fight to them. What's unusual about this film is the quality of the actors surrounding Carano. In their turns, she takes on Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Ewan McGregor, with Michael Douglas, Matthieu Kassovitz, Bill Paxton, and a bewhiskered Antonio Banderas rounding out the supporting cast. This is a high gloss thriller with the cast to match. The clout of the director counts for a lot.

Haywire is not one of director Steven Soderbergh's best movies truth to tell, but it's a pretty good genre effort. It's a little cold around the heart, I think, but I kind of like that distance. It's not a movie that indulges in a frenzy of camera work even when there's a frenzy of bodies in motion on screen. It's antithetical to the run and gun of chaos cinema. The action scenes in this movie are largely filmed like the dance scenes in a Gene Kelly musical: head to foot, the entire action in the frame, not many cuts. It helps that Gina Carano can actually do all of the things her character does. The camera doesn't need to hide her during the action scenes. Other parts of the movie are almost austere. There's a chase scene, for instance, in which Carano is filmed from the front on an extended run, with the world receding past her. Soderbergh holds this shot for a long time, demonstrating both the character's steely determination and Carano's own physical fitness. It's a bravura shot. Other shots are still and impeccably composed. This is a film that pays attention to where things are in the frame even if it doesn't necessarily attach any meaning to them. This sets up some of the action scenes where, Hong Kong-style, those objects become foils for the action either as obstructions or as weapons.

While you can hang all kinds of meanings on the simplicity of this film's plot, Soderbergh keeps things all on the surface. The deepest this goes is the suggestion that Kane is her job and her job is her and taking that away from her provokes an existential crisis that she meets with fist and foot. There's only a hint of romance in this movie, when the plot contrives to get Carano dolled up for a high society soiree only to end things with a lethal fight scene between her and her date. That fight actually looks like sex, with Carano crushing Michael Fassbender with her thighs, but apart from this hint of kink, this is a fairly sexless movie. The most recognizably human relationship in the film is between Kane and her father, but the movie doesn't dwell on this. This unwillingness to go beyond the surface of its action might be a result of Carano's inexperience as an actress. You could make a case that Soderbergh is protecting her with his filmmaking choices. Haywire's main reason for being is kinesis for the sake of kinesis and if I were to fault it for anything, it's for not indulging in this to its fullest potential (there are plenty of legitimately great movies that are nothing more than excuses to film elaborate action scenes, after all). Clearly, Gina Carano is up to the task regardless of her chops as a thespian.

1 comment:

The Caustic Ignostic said...

I love the physicality of the fight scenes. They're choreographed, sure, but not to the point of stylized silliness--a la Wuxia films or Star Wars lightsaber duels--and they look like they actually *hurt*. Chalk that up to the positives you get to balance out the negatives of casting green thespian but veteran MMA fighter as your lead.