January 21, 2012
Steven Soderbergh has been one of Hollywood's most reliable directors throughout his career, with hits like Traffic, Ocean's Eleven, and last year's Contagion to his credit. But he's also reserved a reputation as a director who loves to experiment with other ideas. For example, he cast small-town workers as small-town workers in 2005's Bubble, and he cast pornographic actress Sasha Grey to headline his 2009 call girl drama The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh's outside-the-box approach to casting has become a pattern over more than 15 years, which made it less of a surprise when he cast female MMA fighter Gina Carano as the lead in his latest thriller, Haywire.
Carano - who I first knew as "the cute one" from the American Gladiators reboot with Hulk Hogan - headlines the action-packed flick as Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine who works for a "private contractor" and does odd jobs like extracting hostages from Barcelona or investigating a shady businessman in Dublin. She's surrounded by a cast of powerful Hollywood males - Ewen McGregor, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas as the men in power, Bill Paxton as her concerned father, Michael Fassbender as a British agent, and Channing Tatum as a coworker-turned-opponent - but I really don't think any viewer will leave this film and not realize that this is entirely Carano's film.
You've no doubt seen the plot before - skilled professional is set-up, escapes, seeks to clear name and get vindication - but the script by Lem Dobbs (who wrote one of my favorite Soderbergh flicks, The Limey) and Soderbergh's framing of the action sequences play to the strengths of the star. That means that Carano is free to use plenty of hand-to-hand combat when faced with danger, throwing adversaries with her own momentum, using the walls as springboards when necessary, and focusing on weakening limbs and immobilizing others to control the fight. The film isn't as action-packed as the ads would have you believe and some viewers might complain of lapses between action, but I felt Soderbergh balanced the drama of Mallory's plight with more than enough fast-paced fighting and car chases.
Carano is naturally a little green as an actress - I kept thinking that she was overdoing it with facial expressions to denote every thought or concern - but she does a pretty wonderful job when you consider how little acting she's done. There's a definite Kill Bill vibe to the character, but - unlike Uma Thurman - there's not even a doubt in the viewer's mind that Carano is capable of the things she does on screen. The way she carries herself in the role goes a long way to making the film work, because you can see her confidence in herself shining through in almost every scene.
Much will be made of the fact that Haywire empowers a female action star - though I love the quote in the film that warns "You shouldn't think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake" - and rightfully so. This plays like a tribute to Carano and the abilities that women like her posses. I can't think of a Hollywood actress who could have jumped into this film and brought the same combination of skill and intensity, which makes the minor quirks in her acting style irrelevant. Haywire simply could not be what it is without a woman like Carano.
January is generally a dumping ground for movies that studios don't want, so the release of a well-made action thriller from Soderbergh and a Grade A cast is like found gold. When you look at all the talent that surrounds her - both behind and in front of the camera - it's easy to see that Carano was set up for success here. Her particular set of skills does a lot of the work for the film, and the polish that's provided by Soderbergh and company ensures that few will be disappointed by her or the film. Haywire isn't gonna win Soderbergh another Oscar, but it's a completely entertaining action/thriller that signals the potential birth of a star. If she keeps working with the right people, Carano could be the female action hero that Hollywood's craved for decades.