Friday, January 27, 2012

Haywire

The deafening sound of the collective eye-rolling on Twitter—yes, I know eye-rolling doesn't make much sound, but that's the point—when awareness of the plot of Haywire rippled through the community was, um, deafening.

See, this is why I don't try to be clever.

Haywire tells the story of a secret agent who is betrayed by her superiors and must use all her powers to stay alive and avenge herself against evildoers.

Sure, we've seen it before. But have we seen it with a female secret agent?

Well, yes. A lot.

What about if the female is also a real-life athlete?

Well, yeah. It was Cynthia Rothrock's bread-and-butter in the early '90s.

What about if she's surrounded by over-the-hill former A-list actors?

Oh, yeah, big time. Also a staple of '80s and '90s actions flicks.

Well, what if it were directed by an A-list director! And! And that director was the critically acclaimed Steven Soderbergh, who could totally be directing Ocean's 14 or something?

Never seen that before, have ya, smartypants!

And, back-peddling a bit, the A-list actors supporting our heroine are actually still A-list: Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan MacGregor and rising star Channing Tatum.

But the point of this movie is to showcase MMA champion/former American Gladiator Gina Carano.

And for Soderbergh to do to the rogue-spy genre what he did for the outbreak genre. That is, make a reasonably intelligent, somewhat emotionally distant film that avoids most of the usual tropes and is never copied by anyone ever again. (OK, I'm guessing no one will copy it, but Soderbergh is largely blazing his own, unrepeatable trail these days.)

Hiring an actual athlete to play a part is full of all sorts of pitfalls, of course. They often can't act, for example. And sometimes that even matters. Sometimes the desire to showcase the athlete results in shoehorning inappropriate physical motions into—well, Gymkata, okay?

And, of course, when the athlete is female, it's customary to exploit the crap out of her figure from every conceivable angle.

So, the good news is that Carano has a fair amount of charisma and can deliver lines convincingly. She also moves convincingly in the action scenes, which are appropriate and not gratuitous. Soderbergh also resists the urge to show us Carano in the shower, or in lingerie, or even in shorts, dammit.

I mean, that was very mature of him.

The whole movie is very mature, really. Much like Contagion, Soderbergh seems to have asked himself, "Well, if this were really gonna happen, what would the plausible results be?" Carano isn't super-powered, just super-competent. Her opponents are less so, necessarily, but not ludicrously so, as is often the case in this type of film.

For instance, there are a couple of drops in this movie: Once where she falls, and another where she jumps off a roof. If you've ever fallen (or jumped) from a height, you know it hurts a lot and it doesn't take a very high fall (in movie terms) to end up with broken bones. Action movies tend to completely ignore this—and the challenge of most other physical tasks—resulting in increasingly goofy action sequences.

Not here: The fall winds her. When she jumps from a high point, she uses a couple of tricks that (while difficult) are fairly plausible.

The same goes with the fighting: It's not like she stands toe-to-toe with her male attackers trading punches. She positions herself to use more of her body weight. And she's no Kate Beckinsale, either, prancing around in a catsuit: Her fighting weight is a good 30 pounds heavier. She looks believable doing this stuff because she's doing this stuff.

You know how when there's an action scene involving some slip-of-a-thing starlet and it's all done with reverse shots and below-the-neck shots? And you know it's because there's no way that woman could do that. Sometimes they can't even get a stuntwoman who's even close to the body type?

My favorite example of that is Her Alibi where Paulina Porizkova is supposed to be climbing a rope (with just her arms, no less), and in the reverse shots—where they actually show the stunt woman climbing—her ass is five sizes bigger. They couldn't find anyone with Porizkova's body type who could climb a rope like that.

When Soderbergh does a neck-down shot, you know he's doing it so you can see the action, not because he's trying to hide something. This worked very well for me.

The breast implants are distracting, sadly, both because they don't fit with the character and because—well, large breasts, you know? There was something about her skin that was oddly distracting, too.

Overall, it's not a great movie—The Boy said he couldn't get into it at all, though he didn't blame this entirely on the movie itself, but more a prejudice toward the genre—but it's a solid one. It actually makes sense and proceeds logically from plot-point to plot-point. Soderbergh uses a cute device where half the movie is told in flashback to a clueless, frightened guy, which allows Carano to reinforce the significance of certain characters and elements of the plot so that we can follow as well.

The other thing is that it feels like a pilot for a TV series. It has a very B-movie feel. But it is good, and my reaction to it is much like of Contagion: It's good that he avoids the sillier tropes of the genre, but sometimes he seems to be trying to hard to remove a lot of the dramatic tropes that really engage.

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