Thursday, January 19, 2012

She kicks butt -- and means it

Director Steven Soderbergh stops making sense, and opts for action.

The other night I was looking at Angelina Jolie's body, not an uncommon activity for male moviegoers, but my motivations had nothing to do with prurient fantasy. Watching Jolie at the 69th Golden Globes, I couldn't help thinking to myself, "God, that woman is thin."

I mention this because Jolie has appeared in a variety of movies -- notably the Lara Croft series -- that emphasize her physical prowess. Seeing the elegantly dressed Jolie at the The Golden Globes, I had a difficult time believing in her action-hero chops.

But Gina Carano, the star of director Steven Soderbergh's new thriller Haywire? She's a whole other story.

According to a fan site, Carno's a 145-pound kickboxer. Carano not only looks as if she can deliver a punch, she actually does deliver many of them, often in rapid, punishing succession.

I probably never would have heard of Carano had Soderbergh not cast her in a thriller that's notable for ... well ... Carano, as well as for some protracted, bruising action, much of it cleverly conceived.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Carano happens to be attractive or that she's able to hold the center of an action-oriented thriller. So, if you want to see a woman who fights -- and means it, Haywire definitely fills the bill.

But beware, the plot of the movie can go as haywire as the title, and, as a colleague suggested after a preview screening, you run the risk of wearing yourself out if you try to follow it too closely.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a woman who works for a private espionage agency. In Soderbergh's globe-hopping story, Mallory is pursued by a variety of foes, some of whom pounce on her with sudden fury.

For those who want to know a little more, I'll take a shot: Someone wants Mallory dead. Displeasure with Mallory has something to do with a Barcelona-based job in which she was hired to rescue a Chinese journalist (Anthony Brandon Wong).

Upon returning from Barcelona, Mallory is given another assignment by her boss (Ewan McGregor). He tells her that he has a really easy job for her. Reluctantly, she travels to Dublin to hook up with a British agent (Michael Fassbender). There, Mallory discovers that she's the target of an elaborate assassination plot.

Fassbender, who played a sex addict in Shame, again finds himself between a woman's legs - only this time he's subjected to strangulating punishment during a fight in a hotel room that does more damage than six drunken rock bands.

To carry out his cinematic mission, Soderbergh has hired a large and impressive cast that includes Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton. Don't get to worked up, though, most of these actors appear in what amount to extended cameos.

Soderbergh also gets tricky with the movie's structure. He has Carano tell the early part of the story to a befuddled young man (Michael Angarano) whose car she commandeers. Her tale is told in a series of flashbacks that feature chases on foot, excruciating brawls, and rooftop scrambles. All of this concludes with a car chase in the woods that's both novel and harrowing.

When Mallory has finished her story, the narrative shifts to the present, building toward a finale that's both pointed and a little confounding. I know that sounds impossible, but that's how it is.

Part of me wants to say that Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs have steeped the movie in needless complication and purposeless confusion. Sure, Haywire shows off Soderbergh's ability to handle action, but when set pieces become a movie's main attraction, you have to wonder why a little more care wasn't spent on storytelling.

"But wait," the Soderbergh fan in me says. Maybe there's another way to look at it. Maybe Soderbergh is offering a wry commentary on the way most Hollywood action movies are packaged and sold. Couldn't almost every action movie be called Haywire? Aren't they all wild collections of set pieces thrown around plots that make little sense? And was my colleague right? Maybe it's wrongheaded of me to want to know what motivates any of these characters.

Oh well, Whatever Soderbergh had in mind, he's found the right woman for the job. Put another way, you come away from the movie believing that Carano easily could kick Jolie's butt -- and maybe even take on her share of punks with names like Bruce, Arnold and Sylvester.

Besides, there's one thing I know for sure: McGregor has the worst hair cut I've seen in a movie in a long time, especially for someone who's not playing a death-row prisoner who's about to be fried.

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