The Girlfight Experience: Gina Carano Goes ‘Haywire’

2011 is long gone — we’re a month into the new year, yet every movie I’ve seen this January is a 2011 release. By design. The studios always roll out way more movies than we could ever possibly see all at once, then let us scramble to catch them all in order to be caught up for the Oscars. (Leaving a dearth of enticing titles the other nine months of the year.)

Still, there is always a time to stop looking backward (for a few days, anyway) and start looking forward, and that time is now. So here it is. My first 2012 review.

Ordinarily, you wouldn’t expect a movie by one of the most esteemed, exciting American directors out there to be released in the dregs of January. This is typically when studios dump some of their crappiest movies (like the latest Katherine Heigl debacle One For The Money) and do a bit of counter-programming (releasing movies geared toward young males who won’t likely be seeing Albert Nobbs no matter how many Academy Awards it’s nominated for).

But Haywire is directed by Steven Soderbergh. It stars acclaimed actors like Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas. It is most definitely a spy movie, but with this kind of talented attached, you know it’s not going to be some brainless, overblown genre exercise like Contraband. Soderbergh is one of the most alluring directors out there these days because you never know quite what you’ll get from him — he’s capable of delivering gigantic blockbusters (the Ocean’s Eleven series), Oscar-bait dramas (Traffic, Erin Brockovich), and offbeat experiments (Full Frontal).

So what does a Steven Soderbergh spy movie look like?As it turns out, a little bit like The Bourne Identity, a little bit like Ocean’s Twelve, and nothing at all like his last film, Contagion (well, except for the A-list cast).

Haywire stars Mixed Martial Arts star Gina Carano as Mallory Kane in her first real gig as an actress (aside from a small role as a fighter in the direct-to-DVD Blood And Bone). Soderbergh just happened to catch Carano fighting on TV one night, set up a meeting with her, and decided to build a movie around her. Because that’s how Steven Soderbergh does things.

The story is your typical spy-thriller business: spy does “one last job”; spy gets betrayed; spy gets revenge. Mallory is an ex-Marine who now works for a “private company” run by Kenneth (McGregor); basically, this is a team of badasses who can shoot guns, kick ass, and run really fast. But when the hostage she successfully rescues turns up dead in a new location anyway, Mallory realizes something has gone, well, haywire in this operation. Soon she’s trading blows with the man who was supposed to be her partner (Fassbender) and on the run from the cops, since she’s been framed for the murder. One wrinkle in all this: she’s recently broken up with Kenneth romantically, and just begun a sexual relationship with Aaron, one of Kenneth’s other employees (Channing Tatum), who now must attempt to kill her.Also caught up in the mess: Mallory’s supportive father (Bill Paxton) and a young hostage (Michael Angarano) whose car Mallory asks to “borrow.” Nothing about the plot is at all surprising; the film’s trailer gives too much away. The film’s sole reason for existence, naturally, is the physicality Carano brings to the role — Soderbergh takes advantage of her tough-girl prowess by using much longer takes than usual in a film of this nature. You can tell that’s really Carano kicking Michael Fassbender’s ass — and you can believe it, too.

The fight scenes are pretty spectacular — a shade more brutal than most action movies, with realistic sound effects and no music, lending them a visceral quality. If only the rest of the movie felt quite so gritty. The story has all the necessary parts for a satisfying spy movie, but the script by Lem Dobbs isn’t quite up to fleshing them out. In particular, Mallory’s relationships with Aaron and Kenneth feel pretty thin. It’s hard to imagine Mallory in a relationship with Kenneth at all, and Soderbergh doesn’t attempt to make either of these storylines as poignant as they easily might have been — which would have elevated Haywire to an entirely different class of movie (more Casino Royale than Colombiana).

Some, but not nearly all, of this is due to Carano’s limited acting range. She’s plenty convincing chasing a bad guy through the streets of Barcelona on foot (awesome) but not so much when seducing Aaron or bantering with Kenneth. (It doesn’t help that the script delivers a surprising shortage of crisp one-liners. “You better run,” is about the best it can do.) Carano is an engaging screen presence — easy to like, fun to watch. There’s something magnetic about her — maybe the fact that you know she can kick just about anybody’s ass at the drop of a hat. But a terrific actress she is not. (At least, not here.) It takes quite an actor to pull off being a cool, kick-ass spy — think Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise, Matt Damon — because there is more than just a physicality required. They need to be cool and confident at all times in order for us to believe that they can pull off this suave, impossible lifestyle, and Carano is visibly uncomfortable in a few scenes, particularly when called upon to dress up and chat with rich, evil folk. It’s the movie equivalent of Lana Del Rey on Saturday Night Live. Stronger writing might have helped, but the script seems just as shy about overdoing it as Carano is.

In 2009, Soderbergh directed the little-seen The Girlfriend Experience starring porn star Sasha Grey, whose previous acting experience was basically limited to telling the pizza guy she’d like extra, extra sausage and pretending she was totally into every fat, hairy bald man who ejaculated on her; Grey’s flat affect and acting inexperience actually worked well for her call girl character. You have to admire Soderbergh for taking chances like this, even when the results are mixed. They are mixed here.

By no means does this undo the movie or lessen its watchability, but it falls a bit short of expectations given the talent involved. The score by David Holmes self-consciously evokes the 60′s to distracting effect, as if trying to make up for the film’s lack of texture. It doesn’t quite work. Haywire‘s one truly clever moment (involving a deer) is nearly worth the price of admission alone, and those fight scenes are mighty fun. If only the script were as tough and striking as its heroine.

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