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Essay: Steven Soderbergh's 'Haywire' thinks as it fights

Former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman sees something real in the director's action thriller starring Gina 'Crush' Carano.

February 05, 2012|By J. Hoberman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Director Steven Soderbergh and star Gina Carano on the set of "Haywire."
Director Steven Soderbergh and star Gina Carano on the set of "Haywire." (Claudette Barius, Relativity…)

No one watches a movie in a vacuum. You don't check your real-world baggage at the door — something for which any good critic must account.

Several days before catching the new Steven Soderbergh action thriller "Haywire," I learned that Soderbergh had made the movie on the rebound, fired from "Moneyball" on the eve of its shoot. Moreover, he got the idea of starring champion mixed martial arts fighter and glamorous "American Gladiator" ingénue Gina "Crush" Carano in the days after his termination, after watching her televised loss to a rival named Cyborg. They were both in the same place, the director thought.

This item, mentally filed as a back story for possible review use ("Off the mat — tale of revenge fueled by actual desire for same"), returned with a certain poignant pow when I saw "Haywire" — barely 24 hours after getting the pink slip from my own job of 30-plus years, writing weekly reviews for the Village Voice — sitting among erstwhile peers, watching a movie that I'd planned to write up but no longer could. Was I tearful? No, let's say the movie vented my frustration as I reflexively scrawled "way better than Moneyball" on the back of the production notes.

I love baseball, but, engaging performances and zippy one-liners notwithstanding, I found "Moneyball" a bland, overly cute snore. This lack of enthusiasm was a minority opinion. "Moneyball" got sensational reviews; its awards include a nod for best screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle. ("They're meeting for the first time," a wag at my table observed when Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin climbed the podium to claim their shotgun-marriage prize.)

Soderbergh too had modified Zaillian's script and had long since moved on. To the degree this resourceful filmmaker has a trademark, it's the application of his considerable intelligence to the solution of a specific problem. Bounced from "Moneyball," he conceived another movie about athletes — or at least one athlete. "The first question I ask is 'What's real?'" Soderbergh told me when reached by phone on the morning last month "Haywire" opened to mixed, mainly positive notices; he had wanted "Moneyball" to be "the most realistic movie ever made about sports." Soderbergh saw the Billy Beane story as both "buddy comedy" and game-changer, "the '2001' of sports movies" — incorporating documentary interviews and dramatic reenactments, "the culmination of 10 years of experimentation and a lifetime of interest."

In pointing out that he appreciated baseball players as "performers," Soderbergh offered a key to his thinking. Although the most versatile of Hollywood directors (his only peers in the willing-to-try-anything realm are Gus Van Sant and Richard Linklater), Soderbergh has some remarkably consistent interests. On a conceptual level, Cine Soderbergh is often concerned with the act of acting or putting on an act. The self-aware potboiler "Ocean's Thirteen" was a sort of meta-caper that riffed on con artists gaming the system, while "Che," the two-part epic with which Soderbergh staked a claim to filmmaking greatness, pondered the nature of a world-historical actor.

His low-budget experiment "The Girlfriend Experience" was all about role-playing, with porn star Sasha Grey (the movie's only professional actor) as a character who, appearing as a high-priced call girl, is always acting (and who, in the course of her work, has to cope with things that might afflict any young actress — would-be producers, nasty critics, duplicitous screenwriters, jealous boyfriends). This interest is ongoing. Soderbergh's next film, "Magic Mike," scheduled to open in June, is a comedy about a male stripper; his next project is a biopic on the flamboyant '50s pianist Liberace.

As "The Girlfriend Experience" was built around Grey making her legitimate film debut, so "Haywire" was conceived for Carano and is also, in essence, a portrait. The movie, according to Soderbergh, would not have been made had the charismatic cage fighter declined to participate. Once she agreed, he called upon former collaborator Lem Dobbs to write "a companion piece to 'The Limey.'" Carano would play a former Marine and freelance black-ops specialist (unlicensed but contracted to kill). Her buff but glamorous Mallory Kane isn't the season's only tough gal — each in her way, the protagonists of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and "The Iron Lady," Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander and Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher, mix it up with and shellac some highly obnoxious men. That both women have been Oscar-nominated only serves to underlie their novelty performances — they're acting! Not Carano. When she ricochets off a wall or clamps some guy's throat in a thigh-grip, she is only being … herself.

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