Monday, January 23, 2012

On the Big Screen: HAYWIRE (2012)

Here is Gina Carano in her element: the fenced confines of the mixed martial arts battleground. The video was uploaded by ginacaranodotorg.

A star was not born last weekend after Steven Soderbergh's Haywire opened weakly at the box office. It was telling that more people wanted to see Kate Beckinsale fight than went to see a real woman fighter -- but who goes to movies to see a real fight? Soderbergh's error in thinking he could make a star of Carano, at least in the film Lem Dobbs wrote for her, becomes apparent when we think about movies and mixed martial arts. MMA has been the backdrop for several films by now, but Haywire may be the first non-exploitation, non-straight-to-video movie to cast an MMA fighter as an action hero. While MMA promoters would like you to imagine the sport as a constant battle of kicks and punches, most people realize by now that grappling and "ground and pound" prevail much of the time -- and ground-and-pound just isn't cinematic. Granted, Soderbergh doesn't film Carano using much ground-and-pound technique, though she does get to choke out at least one of her co-stars. Nevertheless, the director is part of the problem. He undercuts Carano's credibility somewhat by resorting to heavy editing, perhaps to accommodate such opponents as Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor. Watching it reminded me of the way insensitive directors of musicals disrupt the virtuoso flow of dance by impulsively cutting within a number. If you think about it, people like Hermes Pan and Yuen Woo-ping are in the same business. Like dance, cinematic martial arts is all about choreography, but Soderbergh, perhaps out of some misguided commitment to realistic fight techniques, gives us fight sequences with occasionally impressive bursts of Carano's indisputable power but none of the sustained physical spectacle that make great martial-arts scenes memorable. Again, doing that might not have been true to Carano's true talent, but that brings us back to the question of MMA's cinematic potential, and around to the larger question of whether Soderbergh, despite his stated intention of making this MMArtist a star, actually meant to make a "martial arts" movie.

Soderbergh and Dobbs last teamed up for The Limey, and like that film Haywire is a revenge story. But while the earlier film's title Brit was avenging a lost daughter, Carano's Mallory Kane is only avenging herself. She's an "added value" operative for some sort of private espionage contractor hired to rescue a kidnapped Chinese dissident journalist in Barcelona. Moving on to Dublin, she learns that the same journalist has been murdered, and she's been framed on the assumption that she won't leave Ireland alive. As in The Limey, this is all told in flashback. The film actually opens somewhere in upstate New York with the shock sight of personable Channing Tatum throwing a cup of fresh hot coffee in Carano's face. The subsequent flashbacking explains how she got there, though Tatum's role (he was one of her partners in Barcelona) remains ambiguous. Echoes of The Limey persist in the hilltop mansion of Mallory's military-buff dad (Bill Paxton) and a climactic confrontation on a beach. But Haywire has none of the gravitas Terence Stamp brought to Limey because we know next to nothing about Mallory Kane's past, how she got to be (and got to be accepted as) a super-agent fighting machine, while neither the dissident's death nor the collateral corpses that accumulate along the way weigh on the heroine's conscience the way the Limey's daughter's death did on his. Nor does Soderbergh ever really give Carano the kind of awe-inspiring badass spotlight that shined on Stamp. Her story is simply too irrelevantly complicated. I found myself not caring who was ultimately to blame (McGregor? Antonio Banderas? Michael Douglas?) for setting Mallory up. Once the story proved uncompelling, the film's shortcomings as martial-arts spectacle became more glaring. What this film needed above all was a scene in which Mallory faced someone we could believe as her equal or possible superior. It never happened, and if we were to understand that the Tatum or Fassbender characters are her martial peers, Soderbergh does nothing to establish their credentials.

Haywire is a weak rather than bad film. It's technically competent and well-acted overall -- Carano herself is at least adequate for her role. You might not gripe if you don't have to pay first-run prices to see the thing. It may be a victim of misplaced expectations, since I may have been expecting a different movie from the one Soderbergh intended. But if you declare your intent to make Gina Carano a star, that creates a certain expectation immediately whether Soderbergh realizes it or not. The most I can say is that I saw enough of Carano onscreen to think she should get another chance. It's a shame that people might leave the multiplex this week thinking that Kate Beckinsale could kick Carano's ass. But in a medium where Beckinsale can do what she does in her movies, that outcome might be inevitable.


Anonymous said...

It always annoys me how Hollywood always seem to want their spies to be first and foremost, killing machines. The fact is, a spy's job is to gather information. Get into fights would be counterproductive.

Samuel Wilson said...

The problem is that Hollywood's preferred templates for spies are James Bond, who is defined by his license to kill, and ninjas. I guess you'd have to see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for more realistic espionage.