Steven Soderbergh doesn’t make bad films. Even when they’re hackneyed (Ocean’s 13 and 12, and Contagion), have flop written all of them (Che: Part One and Che: Part Two), and are ludicrous (The Good German), he somehow manages to produce something that’s better than most. And that’s just on his bad days.
So, while another film about an invincible female protagonist – think Joe Wright’s Hanna and Phillip Noyce’s Salt – doesn’t exactly fill you with overflowing optimism, remember you’re in the safe hands of the same filmmaker who gave us Solaris, Traffic and Out of Sight. As unpromising as the ‘special ops agent (Gina Carano) gets betrayed and seeks revenge’ premise suggests – surely more Stephen Seagal territory than Steven Soderbergh – the director has polished stinkier turds than Haywire before.
Personally billed by Soderbergh as “a Pam Grier movie made by Alfred Hitchcock”, we’re not sure what the British master would think of Carano, an actress who fans of American Gladiators know better as ‘Crush’. But unlike Grier, she’s a genuine badass, whose background in mixed martial arts (in 2007 she defeated an opponent courtesy of a “rear naked choke”) brings an authenticity to the action scenes that will have Sid the Sexist and his mates running for the covers.
While it’s true her dialogue is a bit stilted (Hercules in New York anyone?) – and even apparently required some post-production tweaks – she still has enough presence to render a pretty powerful performance (maybe Hollywood’s finally found the female version of Arnie).
Her action scenes are helped by Soderbergh’s steady hand (he was also the director of photography), for here’s a film in which you can actually see what’s happening – in most cases to the crotches of the men that Carano is punching, kicking, crushing and stamping on. The frank, in-your-face, no camera tricks violence dispels any illusions that this might be another arthouse agent film of the same ilk as The American.
But what the hell’s going on when she’s not fighting? Good question, and one that has left every other cinema-goer a little dumbfounded thus far – screenwriter Lem Dobbs (The Limey and Kafka) has a proven track record in confusing audiences. While it’s a predictable tale, the plot gets un-necessarily complicated – not least to service Soderbergh’s perpetual need to find parts for all his actor buddies.
“A vigorous spy thriller that consistently beckons the viewer to catch up with its narrative twists and turns,” noted USA Today. “Bordering on convoluted, it works best when in combat mode.” Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor are among the distracting big name cameos, and only McGregor has anything approaching an important role.
Ultimately, it’s unclear who will want to watch this. Carano is as attractive as she is athletic, but to suggest this will be popular with teenage boys is a great disservice to their ingenuity levels in the area of downloading porn. That leaves teenage girls, and it’s true they could learn a thing or two watching this film – even if it is different ways of hitting men in the groin.
Sadly, this film has come along too soon for Carano, who undoubtedly has promise. She needs to fine-tune her delivery, learn her craft in a few supporting parts, and her big break will come in a superhero flick. She just isn’t ready for star billing, but in the words of the man whose career she might end up emulating: she’ll be back.
And as for Soderbergh, this film has come along too late. Five years ago, it would have been slick and cool and we would all been praising a work of ‘minimalista azione’. He’s been telling interviewers for a while that he badly needs a sabbatical to refind his inspiration. So what’s stopping him? Someone give him Terrence Malick’s address and they can sit out the next decade together.
Dir: Steven Soderbergh;
US action, 2011, 93 mins;
Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender
Premiered: April 19