Sunday, January 22, 2012

Knockout: HAYWIRE

Retired mixed martial arts star Gina Carano is the center of Haywire, a terrifically exciting action thriller. This is essentially her acting debut, playing Mallory Kane, a tough ex-Marine who works for an independent company that is hired by the United States government to execute strategic, secretive missions. She’s a secret agent for hire. Carano is perfect for the role. She’s tough and gorgeous. You don’t want to cross her. She has intensity in her eyes and muscle to her physicality. She doesn’t just look like a fighter; she is a fighter. When her punches land, not only are they convincing, they look like they cause some real pain.

I love Salt and Hanna, two recent female-starring actioners, but that doesn’t mean there’s no suspension of disbelief that Angeline Jolie or Saoirse Ronan can really fight like they do in those films. That Carano can really handle herself in a fight is no small fact. It’s the very purpose of the film. Every step of the way, she has to fight off attackers. With simply stunning fight choreography, Carano kicks, flips, and punches her way to freedom. The music drops away, leaving only the grunts, whaps, and thunks to score the action. There’s a tantalizing eeriness as the camera stands back and regards with a restrained stillness that suits the judicious editing. The diegetic sound is all we need to feel the full force of these knockdown drag-out fights.

The film could easily have been a routine story of espionage and double crosses, but it’s so energetically and stylishly told that it’s anything but. Directed by Steven Soderbergh from a smoothly complicated script by Lem Dobbs (they last worked together on The Limey, another great thriller), it moves with a slick, artful excitement. We start in the middle of things, with Carano getting attacked in an upstate New York diner by a former coworker (Channing Tatum). It unfolds with quick brutal resourcefulness as she kicks him out cold and then demands a cowering patron (Michael Angarano) give her a ride and patch up her arm. On the way to wherever she’s heading, she tells him her story.

The film globetrots through flashbacks the reveal that a government bureaucrat (Michael Douglas) hires a security company, headed by a slick suit (Ewan McGregor) consulting with a Spanish counterpart (Antonio Banderas) to rescue a Chinese dissident held hostage on Spanish soil. It appears to be a successful op, and Carano heads off to her next mission, playing wife to an undercover British agent (Michael Fassbender). There she learns she’s being framed for murder charges. She escapes, barely finds the time to call a warning to her dad (Bill Paxton), and then spends the rest of the film on the run, leading us back to where we came in and beyond as she pieces together the conspiracy that put her in this predicament.

It’s so sleek and fast, with nary a wasted shot, it’s practically aerodynamic. The action is well staged by Soderbergh, whose films are at least as interesting for how the story is told as for the story itself. His cool digital cinematography and crisp editing have a clinical movement to them, laying out the spaces of the sets with ease and allowing the fights – not to mention the chases, the shootouts, and even simple conversational clashes – to unfold with clarity and cold, blunt observational precision. This is gleaming pop pulp filmmaking, hurtling through familiar tropes with an uncommon energy. It’s just plain fun.

And I think Soderbergh and Dobbs had fun coming up with this film too. Carano’s compelling athleticism may be the driving engine of interest here, but the pleasantly jumbled chronology of the plot, the precision of the shots, and the deeply talented supporting cast are just as compelling. There’s a fleeting moment when, during a chase scene, an animal darts across the road. It’s a perfect, whimsical moment that’s at once a lovely visual detail, a funny little gag, and an escalation of tension. Soderbergh creates frames that are composed to have information in the background like this to heighten the experience of watching. He doesn’t overwhelm you with visual noise. He invites you to look closer. A moment during a rooftop foot chase finds Carano slinking through the foreground while we can see, tucked away in the corner of the frame, her pursuers a few roofs back. Neither the pursuers nor the pursued has the whole picture, but there’s a thrill in understanding the layout that enhances the stakes. (The moment is twinned in the climax when Carano comes hurtling from the background, smashing into the unaware villain in the foreground).

Steven Soderbergh films are about the stakes inherent when people are very good at their jobs (Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13), which makes it all the more troubling when things go wrong (Contagion, Out of Sight), when people who may at times seem competent aren’t (The Informant!, Bubble, Solaris), when we question the value of what they do (Traffic, The Girlfriend Experience). All of the above applies to Haywire. Gina Carano is very good in a fight, but when she beats a path through her former coworkers, barely escaping with her life, it’s destabilizing. She’s been cut loose from her company and her extralegal status does her no good. She may have skill, but the system itself is broken.

The very classification that allows the company to do whatever it wants in the name of national security is of no help whatsoever to her. This confident and capable woman has only so much fight in her. She can only run for so long. Confidence and capabilities will mean nothing if she can’t prove her innocence and uncover the corruption. And that’s what makes the movie work so well. Carano has incredible action star charisma. I believed she could beat up anyone she needed to. But the resolution of the conflict doesn’t rely solely on her physical capabilities. She makes a compelling center of rooting interest in an ensemble made up of people of cold, calculating sliminess. Much like the film itself is proof of the coolness of verisimilitude in a genre of pretenders.

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