Thursday, January 26, 2012

Root Canal

Steven Soderbergh has had an amazing career. I remember being bowled over by his first film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989--for which he also wrote the screenplay). That seemed a genuinely innovative film, and even now I cannot imagine anyone other than James Spader in the lead role. What a start to a director's career.

Since that time his output has been all over the map, including The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Oceans 11, 12, and 13, The Informant, Contagion; and a couple of my personal favorites, Solaris and The Good German. And quite a few others, including the rather bizarre The Girlfriend Experience (which I watched recently and can't corral my thoughts enough to review it.) The only thing this output seems to have in common is his name on the letterhead.

The latest addition to his canon is Haywire, a very Jason-Bourne-like story about defense contractor Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) who must exact revenge on her employer (think Xe, née Blackwater) when they inexplicably turn on her. Beginning in the present day, we flash back to Mallory's recent series of jobs handled in a couple different locations out of the country, the last of which turned sour when her work partner had tried to kill her. This puts Mallory on the run. Why? Who wanted this outcome? And for what purpose? Trusting no one, she sneaks back into the US, where she sniffs her way to the root of the evil. And how she gets to the root of things is, well, it's why we love these kinds of movies. (As we hear Ewan McGregor say during the preview in a conversation with an unknown man, "Oh, don't think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.")

This is the era of the female ass-kicker, it seems, with Lisbeth Salander on everyone's radar. And while Haywire doesn't rewrite the rules of the genre it gives another very engaging take on the Bond / Bourne theme of the super-competent agent having to fend for herself. What's different here is not only that the special agent in question is a woman, but that Soderbergh has cast a woman who is absolutely believable in the role and filmed her accordingly. Not that there isn't plenty of artistic license taken in the film, but Soderbergh has managed to tell a pretty typical spy thriller kind of story with less movie magic than is typically employed; and the film is better for it.

And it's all possible because of his star Gina Carano, who is recently retired from a career as a top-rated MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter and TV "gladiator." This is Carano's first major role. She acquits herself extremely well, I'd say, though whether she's suited to a broad range of styles remains to be seen. Perhaps, my wife suggest, I'm just made soft in the head by her; she is built like the proverbial brick shithouse (as her Maxim pictorial attests). Unlike Rooney Mara, Carano is built to a very sturdy specification and is unquestionably able to fend for herself. The film has plenty of fight scenes, and for once the moves do not appear to be solely the output of movie magic. There is much less camera work involved to capture the action, presumably because the action is (mostly) really occurring.

The supporting cast is all excellent: Ewan McGregor (playing a rare baddie as an Erik Prince impersonator--no wonder revenge tastes so sweet when such a lowlife scum gets what's coming to him), Michael Douglas (great to see him rebounding from his cancer so well), Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas.

Here's yet another genre tackled deftly and satisfyingly by this most chameleonic of directors. Things have been clearly left open for a sequel, and I would gladly pony up to see Mallory Kane's further adventures.

Grade: B+


dbackdad said...

Very cool. I had already planned on seeing this one. I've always been a fan of Soderbergh's sensibilities.

dbackdad said...

Saw it tonight and liked it. Review should be up sometime Sunday (also a review of indie film Meek's Cutoff).

Vancouver Voyeur said...

A bunch of us "ladies" are going to see it this afternoon. I read an interview with Soderbergh and he said he didn't like movies where women kicked butt and it wasn't believable. He saw Carano compete and realized he could make a realistic movie with her in the part.

wunelle said...

And he succeeded, I'd say. I'll be curious to hear your impressions afterward.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

We all LOVED it! It was more realistic and I really loved that she fought like a girl. In general, a woman's center of gravity is in the hips while a man's is higher. If a woman hopes to hold her own in a fight with a man, she has to get him down on the ground (off his center of gravity) and use her legs as effectively as he uses his fists. Love the strangle hold! *giggle*

dbackdad said...

Indeed. What a way to go for Mr. Fassbender. :-)

wunelle said...

Agreed. It looks real because she's actually a fighter (for once) and it looks like a fight would (well, plus or minus; it's still a Hollywood film, after all).

I feel like I ought to see it again!