Friday, January 20, 2012

Haywire: Trust nobody

Haywire (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, and needlessly, for action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.20.12

Movies are all about make-believe: our willing suspension of skepticism in exchange for a good time. We tolerate the impossible — varying degrees of the impossible, depending on the genre — because it’s part of the fantasy.
Although her team's human target has been rescued and safely stowed away,
Mallory (Gina Carano) is a consummate professional who hates loose ends. She
therefore pursues the one antagonist who dashes off, even though his escape can't
compromise her efforts. Cue an energetic foot chase with lots of running.

Unfortunately, like a drug addiction that requires an ever-increasing dosage, filmmakers are forever seeking new ways to up the ante and further impress us: to once again deliver a fresh jolt of eyebrow-raising amazement.

Consider the action hero. Back in 1963, the climactic fist-fight between James Bond and Red Grant, in the close confines of a train compartment in From Russia with Love, set a new standard for brutal, claustrophobic mano a mano combat. For the next several decades, film fans and movie stuntmen alike cited that scene as one of the finest ever caught on camera. Indeed, director Terence Young’s work was potent enough to bother British film censors.

Flash-forward to 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, when director Paul Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse staged an even more jaw-dropping skirmish in London’s Waterloo Station: a melee involving Jason Bourne and several antagonists that was so ferociously intense, viewers actually applauded as the scene concluded. It, too, felt real.

That’s the key: credibility.

Trouble is, many directors push the envelope too far, particularly in the action thriller genre. Escalate the violence too much — turn the obligatory fight scenes into cartoons, with heroes and villains somehow enduring bone-crushing punishment — and we simply scoff and roll our eyes over the sheer stupidity of the whole thing. (Exhibit A, with a bullet: last year’s laughably idiotic Sucker Punch.)

Director Steven Soderbergh understands this: recognizes how “inflated thrills” have ruined many otherwise decent pictures. Haywire is his captivating, energized response: a spy drama with action scenes — very much in the mold of From Russia with Love, which he cites in his film’s press notes — rather than a wall-to-wall action flick with minimal story and progressively sillier fight scenes.

Soderbergh wants us to believe that the action elements in this film are punishing but reasonable: not so acrobatic or dangerous that a human being couldn’t possibly handle them.

His secret weapon: mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano, whose fighting styles include Muay Thai, karate, jiu jitsu, judo, wrestling, boxing, sambo, kick-boxing and kung fu ... all in a taut and unexpectedly hot bod. At first glance, during deceptively calm moments, she’s precisely the sort of individual who’d be underestimated right up to the moment she’d flip across the room, slam you to the floor and crush the air out of you — permanently — with a vicious, leg-twisting headlock.

And while she may not have the screen presence of Angelina Jolie, Carano’s certainly no slouch in the acting department. She handles her work here with reasonable conviction, demonstrating enough camera savvy to transition into a modest film career, should she so choose.

Soderbergh surrounds Carano with seasoned pros in small supporting roles, in order to boost the star wattage, but that probably wasn’t necessary; she carries the film capably. Just as well, since she’s in just about every scene.

Lem Dobbs’ twisty script hits the ground running, filling in details as the narrative continues. In the tradition of vintage espionage thrillers, things aren’t as they seem; in the tradition of good screenplays, all the pieces eventually fit together quite cleverly. Dobbs doesn’t cheat: We may not know what the heck is going on at first, but all eventually becomes clear.

Best of all: Soderbergh knows how to get on the stage, deliver the goods and beat a hasty retreat. His film runs an economical 93 minutes because it doesn’t need to be one minute longer. The final scene is ample proof: an audacious corker that sends us from the theater with the delicious knowledge of what’s about to occur ... as opposed to needlessly dragging out the obvious on screen.

We meet Mallory Kane (Carano) in a quiet rural diner in upstate New York. She’s on the run and found almost immediately by Aaron (Channing Tatum), whose familiarity bespeaks some prior working relationship. Alas, Aaron has been sent to retrieve her — on somebody’s behalf — and Mallory has no intention of cooperating. One mildly nasty skirmish later, Aaron’s dazed on the diner floor and Mallory’s fleeing in a car belonging to a helpful bystander (Michael Angarano, as Scott) who clearly wishes he hadn’t gotten involved.

During their subsequent flight from all sorts of folks, Mallory rewards the confused Scott — whose life she has just imperiled — with her back-story. I cannot imagine why she’d do this, aside from the need to supply us with such exposition, but hey: It’s the only clumsy maneuver Dobbs’ script makes. Forgive it and move on.

Turns out that Mallory is a former U.S. Marine turned covert black-ops specialist, working for a freelance government security contractor named Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). Kenneth assembles teams on behalf of any client; the most recent assignment, requested by the shadowy Coblenz (Michael Douglas) — probably an upper-level CIA handler — involves the rescue of a Chinese journalist being held hostage in Barcelona.

Mallory, put in charge of the extraction, oversees a team of three other operatives; one of them is Aaron. The mission proceeds quite well, aside from a minor hiccup that allows Carano to display some of the ferocity contained within her buff frame: a sequence that includes an extended foot chase — unexpectedly extended, in fact — that involves very few camera cutaways. Carano doesn’t even look winded.

After returning to her seldom-visited home in San Diego — just long enough to sort mail and note the arrival of the newest novel, complete with loving inscription, by her Tom Clancy-esque father (Bill Paxton) — Mallory is blind-sided by another assignment from Kenneth. This one’s a cakewalk, he assures her: a brief babysitting job during a la-di-dah charity auction at a palatial estate just outside Dublin.

She’s paired this time with Paul (Michael Fassbender), a British undercover agent who supplies the necessary intel on their target: the sinister Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz). We know he’s bad because, at first opportunity and despite a cover story that has Mallory married to Paul, Studer hits on her. Most arrogant aristocrats wish to show their etchings to female conquests; Studer offers to take Mallory through the estate’s famous garden maze. She wisely declines.

(Pity, that. Russborough House, where this sequence was filmed, does indeed boast a 2,000-square-meter hedge maze, whose goal is to reach a statue of Cupid in the middle. It would have made a great setting for an ambush. Ah, well.)

Unfortunately, everything goes to hell shortly thereafter. Even though Mallory suspects she’s being set up, her intuition doesn’t kick in quickly enough. Within hours, she’s on the run through Dublin’s iconic streets and rooftops: betrayed by she knows not who, and marked for death by whatever means necessary.

Here, again, Soderbergh keeps Carano’s nimble acrobatics within reasonable boundaries; her jumps, leaps and body-hoisting flips from one high perch to the next are choreographed to demonstrate her physical skill, rather than camera trickery. But that doesn’t make the sequence any less tense; indeed, we identify with her even more. Mallory may be strong and resourceful, but she’s no less vulnerable to bullets.

Her subsequent pursuit of truth — and efforts to source the double-dealing — involve some additional skirmishes, but never at the expense of the unfolding plotline. The pool of suspects expands to include the mysterious Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), but surely he’s too suave to be a bad guy ... right?

Although Dobbs’ script easily holds our attention, as we share Mallory’s attempt to penetrate the maze of deceit, we inevitably anticipate each new excuse that allows our heroine to beat the crap out of yet another male foe who underestimates her. These scenes are skillfully choreographed by J.J. Perry, and Soderbergh — who also wears the hats of editor and cinematographer here, under his usual aliases — captures them with breathtaking snap.

The result: a spiffy B-thriller anchored by a fresh female star who, unburdened by the off-camera reputation of (for example) the aforementioned Ms. Jolie, makes everything more fun because we are, in effect, getting to know Carano at the same time we’re sussing her character here.

It’s a highly entertaining experience. Michelle Yeoh athletically took on scores of baddies in numerous 1980s Hong Kong martial arts flicks; it’s about time we had our own bad-ass female action star.

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