Friday, January 27, 2012

The Ass-Kicking of 2012

The career of director Steven Soderbergh has been a strange one. After his debut film Sex Lies and Videotape made him a household name (and earned him the Palm D’Or at Cannes) back in 1989, Soderbergh went on to become one of the most popular directors of the modern era, with a filmography that includes Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and the unimaginably successful Oceans trilogy. While some of his work is perhaps a bit overrated (the mediocre Contagion comes to mind), anyone should be able to appreciate the boundaries he attempts to breach with his filmmaking. That creativity of his has become more pronounced in recent years, as 2008’s Che was so long it had to be split into two parts for theatrical release, and he took an enormous chance in hiring then-active porn star Sasha Grey to headline his street-level look of humanity in The Girlfriend Experience. He’s even the director behind the Channing Tatum stripper biopic Magic Mike, due out later this year. But the most anticipated of his new films, at least in my eyes, has been the female-centric action film Haywire, starring former MMA fighter Gina Carano. Carano had been approached by Soderbergh to star in his new action film back in 2009, and as she had just lost a high-profile match to Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos and was looking to get out of the MMA spotlight, she took him up on the offer. It would not be her first film appearance (That would be the cult film Ring Girls), but this would be the first major motion picture to feature the potential action star out in front, where the world could see what so far only a few had actually witnessed of her abilities.

Gun play thankfully is kept to a minimum
Told in flashbacks, Haywire relates the story of how mercenary Mallory Kane (Carano) has come to be on the run from her former employers after they framed her for a crime she did not commit. The scion of a military family and a former marine in her own right, Mallory was the best agent the firm had, and was just about to take her earnings an move on to more relaxing climes. Now she must fight her way through a private army of goons, assassins and generally unlikable sorts to learn why she has been betrayed, and attempt to reclaim her old life by any means necessary.

Yes, our old friend (and Oscar snub) Fassbender is here...
There’s one important thing to remember when watching Haywire: if a character other than Mallory has an ass, it’s most likely going to get itself kicked. Soderbergh designed Mallory to be a versatile weapon of mass destruction, and Carano fills that gap admirably by beating up anybody that gets between her and victory. Mallory is also shown as being extremely dedicated, living by a moral code, incredibly intelligent and knowing exactly what she wants and how to get it. The only real flaw with Mallory is that she really HAS no flaws, with only the diminutive stature she brings against her larger, male opponents anything close to a weakness. Seeing her in action, it’s apparent that slight edge doesn’t last long, and as one character advises another, thinking of Mallory (or Carano, for that matter) as just a woman “would be a mistake.” With amazing camera work, Soderbergh captures elements both beautiful and ugly in the fight scenes, moving between graceful athleticism and brute force whenever necessary. There are precious few action heroines in the business, and Carano’s addition is one not to be taken lightly, even for a moment.

Turning an Uzi into a blowtorch in six easy steps...
Speaking of Miss Carano, I would have settled for her performance to be dry, dull, and propped up by the more experienced names on the cast list. I honestly wasn't sure an untrained actress would be able to carry such a burden on her first major attempt, and figured that the reason Soderbergh surrounded her with such talent was to offset her own limitations. Silly me. Carano, while not always perfect, still manages to do a whole lot correctly, turning Mallory from a potential black hole of personality into an real life character, one with all the strengths I listed earlier. I don't doubt that the offers will start rolling in, and Carano will amass a decent film career thanks to this amazing start. That said, her supporting cast slouches only slightly, and while not everyone is worth their weight in gold, they do enough to help propel the story forward. Ewan McGregor is smarmy and sly in the main antagonist role, a reversal put to good effect in the case of his usually charming demeanor. In small roles, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton do their share of adding to the film when need be. And Michael Douglas chews the appropriate amount of scenery as a government suit. Despite a sagging Antonio Banderas, this is a well-acted film with deep characters and believable interactions, and is as great as it is thanks to Carano being able to carry it on her shoulders for most of the time.

Guess who'll win this one
Despite a well-told and fast-paced tale, a few details still manage to go missing, and some leaps in the film's logic aren't always cleanly explained when they are. Regardless, Haywire should be considered a success both in the final product and in the casting of Carano in a leading role. What the MMA hoarded for four years is finally out of the box, and I'll be sorely disappointed if this talented young woman doesn't go from being the "Face of Women's MMA" to the face on movie posters across the nation. There are a few female action stars in Hollywood right now, but I have little doubt that this woman has the strength, charisma and determination to best them all. At least for now, she stars in the #1 film of 2012.

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