Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why didn't HAYWIRE make Gina Carrano a star?

Fassbender on his back, but this isn't from Shame.
Steven Soderbergh is probably the most prolific major feature director working today, which has its good and bad points.  Because he is very talented, many of the films he makes will  be very good, or at least will repay the viewer's time.  But because he makes so many films, some of them will have to be sub-par.  And because Soderbergh is willing to experiment, when he swings and misses, he misses hard.

So on the one hand, you have Sex, Lies and Videotape, Traffic, Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brokovich, King of the Hill and Ocean's Eleven.  But you also have Full Frontal, The Girlfriend Experience, Bubble, Solaris and Ocean's Twelve.  And then there's the interesting middle- range films, including The Good German, Che, The Informant! and Contagion -- all films worth seeing, but not going to be in anyone's pantheon.

I suppose Haywire (2011) belongs in that middle class.  It is not without merit, but it clearly doesn't succeed on its own terms, which were to make Gina Carrano, a very successful mixed martial artist, into a movie star.  It was not a feckless task.  Carrano is exciting to watch in a fight, with real flair and personality.  Soderbergh engaged his Limey collaborator, Lem Dobbs to come up with a snappy hard-boiled spy script.  He got actor pals Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum (now starring in Soderbergh's Magic Mike) to agree to be beaten up by a girl on screen.  And Michael Douglas agreed to drop in the way he seems to do these days.  I don't know what else he's got going on, but ol' Mikey's acting appearances all seem to be drive-bys these days.  (Antonio Banderas turns out to be the bad guy, but the film ends just before Gina gets to beat him up.)

So why is Haywire a misfire?  A few possible reasons, plus one essential reason which makes enumerating the others unnecessary.

First, the stakes involved are neither big enough or small enough.  Today in 2012, after almost a century of spies in the movies, there are really only two ways to go with spy stories.  One must threaten the entire existence of the world, a la Bond, or you go the way of LeCarre or a film like The Matador and center it around the existential crisis of the spy.  But Haywire merely documents a routine surveillance and security assignment, coupled with the familiar story of the spy who is framed and must clear himself (see the Bourne films).  So the story itself is unlikely to engage us.

Second, the fights, which are to a film like this what songs and dances are to a musical are not shot or edited well (although they seem to be well staged).  Somebody has to tell Mr. Soderbergh that the experiment is over, that he need not continue to be his own cinematographer, and that he needs to be recommence engaging more talented photographers than himself and thus benefit from their expertise, experience and taste.  He is not a bad cinematographer, but he is not inspired, and some inspiration would be useful here.  Several different tactics are attempted -- long, single take fights, quick, cutty fights, fights shot objectively, fights shot first-person, but none of them are well assisted by the shooting and cutting, and one can't help wish that a Jackie Chan or other expert had been brought in to give the action the impact it should have had.

Third, having robbed Ms. Carrano of her strong suit, that is, her ability to make an impression through her fighting skills, Mr. Soderbergh failed to give her the support she needed to achieve the projection of personality necessary to be a movie star.  Stars come in all varieties, from the most loveable to the creepiest, but the one thing they all have is the ability to virtually emerge through the motion picture screen itself.  When they are doing nothing but listening, they still draw attention and focus and we always feel their characters in their scene.  When Ms. Carrano is not talking or walking or fighting or doing something or other, she virtually disappears.  She is very attractive, but somehow she never suggests that a man would change the course of his life to be with her.

It's hard to describe an absence, but we all know that stars have something in the eye, or just behind the eye.  Some kind of light that regular mortals, like Gina Carrano, simply don't have.  I wish her well, and expect her to be prominent and successful in her own sphere, but Haywire suggests that film is not the place for her.

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