by James Killough @James_Killough
I had completely forgotten while I was watching Haywire that Gina Carano was cast from the TV show American Gladiators. Director Steven Soderbergh has chosen to film the fight sequences without hip-hop, rapid-cut editing; rather, he holds the camera steady while we watch the real actress, not a stunt double, kick the living daylights out of actors who aren’t trained up as fighters to anywhere near her degree.
It reminded me of when I was about nine and used to practice judo with my nanny, Diane, a horsey butch lass from Coventry with bad acne and a brown belt in aikido. She’d just toss me across the living room like a rag doll. Watching Carano do the same to Channing Tatum, who lists a film called Fighting in his credits, is quite something. I’d almost say this is the first time I’ve ever felt that the female lead in a film was a bully.
Soderbergh’s problem seems to be the same as Woody Allen’s: he just wants to knock the film out and move on to the next one, which in this case I believe was Magic Mike, the movie about Tatum’s stint as a male stripper, which I would have been very keen to move on to myself had I been directing both. Having sat through Contagion and felt the same lack of engagement on the director’s part, I almost wish Soderbergh were more like me and developed each of his projects for twenty years or more.
Soderbergh’s ADHD is not something I’m pulling out of the blue. After winning the Palme D’Or for sex, lies, and videotape at the age of, like, twelve and effectively launching the modern American indie film movement as we know it, he then veered way off course with Kafka and a clutch of other stinkers until he finally lost his mind and made the semi-autobiographical Schizopolis, which as ardent readers of this blog know I had to see, if only because it contained the word “schizo” in its title.
I am one of the few who has seen it because Schizopolis is unwatchable, excruciating. In a way it’s Soderbergh’s own little bit of development hell, I suppose: nobody in the industry gets away with not going through it. Some of us do it in the closed world of production companies and dark bars, others in the glaring light of public ridicule. After that little bit of self-induced shock treatment, four years later Soderbergh bounded back with Erin Brockovitch, and has been knocking them steadily out for better or worse ever since.
When I moved to New York from Italy as an Ameropean teen, the country was still the transition time when Americans were experimenting with exotic foreign foods, like croissants and pasta that didn’t come pre-cooked in a can. I remember standing in a classmate’s kitchen watching her make spaghetti with some amusement and not a little disgust because the sauce was coming out of a jar and the parmesan from a bright green canister that didn’t need to be refrigerated with “Kraft” written on the side.
Rather than tasting a strand from the pot, she scared the shit out of me by plucking one from the boiling water and flinging it past my head at the wall behind me. “It’s how you check if it’s ready,” she answered in reply to my what-the-fuck exclamation. “If it sticks, it’s done.”
That’s sort of the way I feel Soderbergh approaches filmmaking: as long as it sticks, it doesn’t matter how it’s made. In the case of Haywire, the most Tony Scott-titled film he has ever boiled, it does stick very well until the third act, and then it just slides off the wall into the trash.
Soderbergh shoots and edits his own films, which means that no matter how good, or how prolific and experienced he is, he operates with near-zero distance from what he’s created. In the case of Haywire it is neither the cinematography nor the editing that’s at fault, it’s the wimpy B-grade genre script.
In fact, this is the first film where I felt Soderbergh managed to match the gorgeous look of Traffic using HD. He’s come a long way since Che, which he shot on an early version of the Red camera—Haywire’s Red is a later version—and which was too video-like in most sequences to be seen in a cinema, especially with digital projection. Because Che was a period piece, the visual reminder that it was shot on video gave it a constant sensory allusion that it was playacting in the modern era.
Let me break down what I liked and didn’t from an early American spaghetti-making point of view:
The script (way undercooked): I can’t remember a film in recent memory where I remarked to myself, This is such an elaborate set-up. The payoff had better be fucking phenomenal. Oh shit, it isn’t. The third act is shamefully bad in terms of plot. All the more shame because Soderbergh has access to the best of Hollywood writing talent.
Gina Carano (al dente): She looks like Catherine Zeta-Jones, but is a better performer, and is clearly a real fighter—although you keep wondering if that massive rack she’s heaving around doesn’t get in the way, and if the excess weight isn’t from steroid use. She should raise the bar on what we should expect from female action heroes, except nobody is watching this film.
Ewan McGregor (overcooked): Overrated is more like it. You understand why this guy became a movie star, but not why he’s still hanging around. His American accent held firm, but he looks too Euro for a Yank: despite shaving his head on the sides, he just has none of our square block-like presence.
Channing Tatum (al dente): Loved him in this. Then again, I’d probably even watch him in the upcoming 21 Jump Street, but that’s because I’m such a big ‘mo, and he just becomes more my type with each passing year. However, in his sex scene with Carano he looks scared shitless of her, so I just didn’t buy it.
Michael Fassbender (overcooked): Well, not exactly overcooked because I’m not sure he even gets in the pasta pot on this one. When Carano kicks his ass—there is no spoiler there; she kicks everyone’s ass—you’re not sure why he’s even in the fight to begin with, especially seeing as the Shame star didn’t even get to bang her before she kicks his ass.
The Ocean’s Series Feel (way undercooked): You almost get a feeling there was an attempt for a thriller franchise here; I imagine that’s every studio’s ambition, especially a fledgling one on shaky legs like Relativity Media. You can’t tell if Soderbergh is going for Oceans or Traffic or a mash-up of both. Did he even think about it beforehand?
I think McGregor’s character sums it up best when he is setting Fassbender’s up to meet Carano’s: “You’re not dealing with a woman. It would be a mistake to think that.” In almost every kickass woman film, like Colombiana or Le Femme Nikita, the ninja chick needs to cry at certain points to show remorse for behaving like a man. I dunno. That sounds like the most ridiculous film theory I’ve ever come up with, so I can’t even finish the thought.
It boils down to Soderbergh’s hit-and-miss schizo ADHD: when he’s on target it’s great, but when he loses focus, it’s a mess. Maybe he should start writing his own scripts, too?