Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Slightly Short of "Haywire"

The star of Steven Soderbergh's latest action film "Haywire," is professional MMA fighter Gina Carano, who has no need of a stunt double. She shines in every fight scene, every chase sequence where she's called on to pull off one physically demanding stunt after another. Unlike so many other female-led action movies, it's clearly the physically capable Carano who is doing all the work, so she is immediately believable as Mallory Kane, a professional covert operative who plays the spy game for a living. Well, that is until Carano starts getting more and more dialogue, and you realize her acting skills are nowhere near the same level as her fighting prowess.

There is so much about "Haywire" that I liked and enjoyed, but its biggest flaw is inescapable. Gina Carano has a lot of raw potential, but she was not ready to anchor a movie like this. I could see her doing better in something pulpier and more stylized, like a Jet Li or Jason Statham vehicle, where her awkward line delivery and inability to emote wouldn't be such big stumbling blocks. In "Haywire," however, Carano is up against a full house of top-notch acting talent, and the contrast is too great to ignore. She has to fight and negotiate her way through several of Hollywood's best leading men, including newly minted A-listers Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender, plus Ewan MacGregor, with an assist by Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas. I won't say much about the plot, because it's hardly of any consequence. The bigger question, you may wonder, is how on earth did all of these stars end up in a low-budget action movie together? Oh right. It was directed by Stephen Soderbergh, who everyone wants to work with before he finally decides to go through with his threatened retirement.

And he almost pulls off what he wants to with "Haywire." Whenever Carano is in the thick of the action, be it in one of her many fight scenes, or the long chase sequence that is the highlight of the film's second half, "Haywire" rivals any of the "Bourne" movies, and certainly beats other female-led action vehicles like "Salt" or "Hannah." The pace and rhythm of it are right, along with the wonderful use of the jazzy musical score, and the cinematography that is breathlessly kinetic without turning into a shaky-cam blur. Soderbergh goes for more realism this time, focusing on the thrills instead of the mood, as he did with "Out of Sight," playing to his leading lady's strengths. I really appreciated that Carano's fighting style and the choreography of her fights make sense for someone with her physique, and that they don't look like what Hollywood normally has its female characters doing. It's almost enough to make up for the rest of her performance. Almost.

I think there were ways that some of the acting issues could have been mitigated, but the fatal problem with "Haywire" is that it is totally Gina Carano's show from start to finish. She's the one who's onscreen almost the entire time, the one who the story follows as she travels aroudn the globe, the only constant in the story. All of her male co-stars are perfectly fine in their roles, but these are limited. If you''re a fan of Tatum or MacGregor or the rest, I'm sorry to say that none of them really get to do much beyond playing stock action film types. So whenever Carano's banter is off, or she can't quite get us to buy the sexual tension between her and her co-workers, there's no safety net. Something about Carano's line delivery in particular frequently feels off, to the point where it gets increasingly distracting.

Still, I can't fault Soderbergh for taking a chance on Carano, because she's clearly got a movie star in her. She looks right, both standing next to Michael Fassbender in an evening gown, and repelling an invasion of enemy infiltrators in camouflage paint. It's a thrill to see her in motion, fluidly climbing walls and leaping over rooftops without a hint of a wire assist. Some of her more dialogue-heavy scenes are better than others, which suggests that she'll probably improve with more screen time and experience. Compared to some of the male action stars we've seen over the years with similar backgrounds, she's not in a bad place. However, I think her gender does play a role in why it's difficult to make allowances for the fact that she's really an action performer first and an actress second.

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