Wednesday, February 8, 2012
With the more films he makes, I become more and more convinced that Steven Soderbergh approaches his career as a studio director in the 1940s and 50s may have, with all the benefits of modern technology at his disposal. He simply takes what's in front of him, and makes a aesthetically personal version of that kind of film, highlighting all its intrinsic attributes with his distinct vision.
With Haywire, he's approaching the spy thriller, but not even the high-minded spy thriller - this is more like a Steven Segal story than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or even the Bourne films. This is standard-issue double-cross/revenge stuff, but better-cast and shot with Soderbergh's incredible eye for composition and rigor in the edit bay. He packs more information into a few seconds with editing that's both very rudimentary yet pleasingly fluid, and it's only when the fight scenes start that he holds back, taking in all of the action in as full a frame as possible. It's strange that this less-is-more approach would be as propulsive and thrilling as it is, but there you go.
The film is "about" Mallory (Gina Carano), an agent for a private firm contracted by the U.S. government to take care of all those covert black-ops jobs that private firms in movies do. Right away, we find out she's been betrayed, and in a series of flashbacks, we're caught up to speed until we have enough information to dive forward. The structure is particularly interesting here, as Soderbergh is pretty fleeting with his storytelling during the flashbacks, becoming more direct with his chronology once we're back to the "present." It's an interesting tact, and it makes for a hell of a ride, turning the usual problem with flashbacks (that it's just stuff that's already happened, and is automatically robbed of cinema's intrinsic immediacy) on its head by making them what they are - memories and stories, highlighting the big moments but glossing over the details.
I put "about" in quotes above, because it's like, who cares about Mallory? A lot has been made of Gina Carano's performance, namely that it's a) wooden, and b) fake. Fake you say? Apparently! See, Carano isn't really an actress, per se (other than the fact that she's now starred in a major motion picture, but shhhhh don't tell anyone), but made her name as an MMA fighter (like those guys in The Warrior), and there's a mandate somewhere that all non-actors must actually be secretly unbelievably talented to justify their employment. There's even a lot of speculation out there, for which I cannot find corroboration, that Carano's voice was actually dubbed by Laura San Giacomo, and, well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn't. I guess I don't really see why that matters all that much in examining the film as a whole (besides, it worked for Bicycle Thieves).
Oh, sure, it gives you the ability to pick apart the bits and pieces and say well maybe Carano isn't as talented as all that, but, for me, Mallory works as a screen presence. Is she convincing as a real person? Here and there. Not totally. But neither are a lot of screen presences, and Mallory isn't exactly designed to show off anyone's range, and the film isn't exactly designed to be all that concerned with who Mallory is or what makes her tick. She's designed to be a bullet-train both in physical force and personality, and Carano brings the former with so much power I suspect she may very well take on that train (she definitely challenges Tom Cruise for the "best screen runner" title). Mallory may not be a terribly compelling character, but she's a wonderful construct.
And that is what the film is about - physical confrontation and human infallibility in the face of it. While most action films are intent on showing a hero who has everything under control, even when the circumstances fail them (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, for example, relied on failing technology just a few too many times), Haywire draws tension and thrills from Mallory's slip-ups and circumstantial run-ins. You get a nice, durable plot structure on which to hang it, but this is what we're watching, these are the performance bits that matter - how Carano, as an action star, handles herself in physically-demanding situations.
That it's all wrapped up in Soderbergh's rich-yet-spare shooting approach just makes it a beautiful cinematic experience. Elliptical, jazzy, sexy, and throttling, Haywire is the film everyone said Drive was, and so much more.