Steven Soderbergh Teams Up With Gina Carano For ‘Haywire’

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2012, long before Gina Carano’s acting career went in a certain direction which she did not benefit from.

Watching Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire” brought back a lot of great memories I have of watching action heroes kicking serious ass in movies. I grew up watching Steven Seagal snap arms in half in “Hard to Kill” and “Marked for Death,”, and I always found in intensely satisfying to see him lay waste to those enemies who dared to cross him. There was also Chuck Norris who you could always count on to inflict serious pain on his adversaries and perform a pitch perfect roundhouse kick in “The Delta Force.” Those films came out in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Now we are in the year 2011, and it feels like it has been far too long since we have had an action star who can punch and kick in ways I can only dream of doing myself.

With “Haywire,” Soderbergh introduces us to Gina Carano, a now retired mixed martial arts fighter. As he did with Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience,” he throws Carano into her first mainstream acting role to see how she swims in the competitive world of Hollywood. But whereas Grey had unknown actors to work with, Carano is placed in a sea of top-notch actors which include Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas. Taking this into account, I cannot help but think Grey had it a lot easier than Carano.

“Haywire” is another one of those innocent people framed for a crime they didn’t commit movies with Carano playing Mallory Kane, a black ops agent who is assigned to covert operations. Kane is quick to discover she has been set up to take a fall, and she plots her revenge against those who foolishly underestimated her vicious talents. You know she will eventually get the upper hand on her betrayers, and seeing her take them on is terrific fun as she performs stunts which I don’t always see Stallone or Schwarzenegger doing as well.

Yes, Carano’s acting range only goes so far, but she does have a strong presence whenever she’s onscreen. Furthermore, she manages to hold her own against actors who could have easily run her over and embarrass her without remorse. Having said that, she really comes alive during the action sequences which are exhilarating as she doesn’t have some stunt person filling in for her. It should be no surprise that, being MMA fighter, she can really take a punch and dish one out which looks far more painful than the one she was forced to endure.

Actually, when you think about it, Carano gives all the actors opposite her a tough acting challenge as they have to appear as tough, if not tougher, than she is. Certain actors (you’ll know them when you see them) look inescapably sheepish around her, and they look even worse when they prepare to throw punches in her general direction. Even when she’s not strangling a guy with her legs, tackling another, or smothering an unluck bastard with a pillow, those eyes of her stare at you like shiny daggers to where you feel like you should have known better than to mess with her.

The one actor who gives Carano a run for her money is Fassbender with whom she shares a dynamo fight scene where they literally beat the crap out of each other. Fassbender never makes it easy for his co-stars as he challenges them to be better than they already are, and this takes on a new meaning when they tangle to where one character’s victory is truly earned and not easily predicted.

“Haywire” may never be ranked among Soderbergh’s greatest works, but it is diverting fun as it plays around with the action movie conventions set up by the Bourne trilogy and various spy movies released over the years. It also allows him to team up again with his “Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen” composer David Holmes for another groovy music score which always proves to be so much to play on my stereo system. It will be interesting to see where Carano’s acting career goes from here. Will she advance to action star status, or will she end up in straight to video realm where many stars past their prime end up? Whatever you may think of her acting skills, she did create a memorable presence here onscreen.

At the very least, Carano is bound to have more luck on the silver screen than Howie Long has had to date. He may have been a cool dude in “Broken Arrow,” but his lead role in “Firestorm” left little to be desired.

* * * out of * * * *

Knight of Cups

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Ever since he ended his decades-long hiatus with “The Thin Red Line,” Terrence Malick has been very prolific as he keeps putting out one beautifully poetic film after another. He also remains a filmmaker people either love or hate as his work leaves audiences deeply polarized. His seventh film, “Knight of Cups,” is unlikely to change the perceptions people have of him, but those who admire him will find much to take in. It’s also a film which has what many of Malick’s films lack: a straightforward narrative.

“Knight of Cups” takes its name from the tarot card which, when held upright, represents change and new excitements especially of a romantic nature, and it can mean opportunities and offers. When the card is reversed, however, it represents unreliability and recklessness and indicates false promises. But moreover, the Knight of Cups is a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities, and offers, and who is constantly bored and in need of stimulation. This person is intelligent and full of high principles, but he is also a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.

The knight of Malick’s film is Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter played by Christian Bale. When we first meet Rick, he looks to be living the high life as he attends parties in Los Angeles which look as decadent as they come, but while he looks to be enjoying himself, those famous Malick voiceovers reveal him to be a lost soul who finds he is not living the life he was meant to. From there he goes on a journey to find an escape from the emptiness he feels and discover more about himself.

The film is divided into chapters named after tarot cards as Rick engages in relationships with different women as he searches for love and a sense of self. We also get to see the troubled relationships he has with his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) who looks to have been driven insane by the hardships of life, and his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) whose life had been derailed by a drug addiction he has since gotten clean from. Throughout we get the usual Malick-isms of voiceovers, characters staring out into space and wanting to speak truthfully to those closest to them, and it’s all captured with a poetic beauty which continues to make Malick one of the more unique filmmakers working today.

Malick has the good fortune of working with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who just won his third Oscar in a row for “The Revenant,” and Lubezki captures the decadent landscapes of Los Angeles and Las Vegas with an inescapable beauty they don’t always have in reality. But he and Malick also capture the banality of them which quickly infects Rick’s soul, and the scenes where Bale is swimming in the violent ocean and wandering through a barren wilderness illustrates how inescapable his loneliness is.

It is said Malick shoots his films without a screenplay and instead gives the actors a storyline to improvise off of. This puts actors on an emotional tightrope which challenges them in ways they don’t often get challenged on, and the cast of “Knight of Cups” more than rises to the occasion. Bale is one of those actors who never backs down from any acting challenge given to him, and he gives yet another compelling performance in a career full of them. It’s also great to see Brian Dennehy here as this is the kind of film role we don’t always see him in, and it serves to remind us of how powerful an actor he can be when given the right role.

The movie also features a number of remarkable actresses playing the various lovers of Rick, and they all stand out in their own individual ways. Cate Blanchett, Australia’s answer to Meryl Streep, plays Rick’s physician ex-wife who still feels a connection to him even though she can’t quite get through to him. Imogen Poots rivets as the rebellious Della, Teresa Palmer makes Karen a most spirited and playful stripper who can seduce anyone with what seems like little trouble, and Frieda Pinto is the definition of serenity as Helen.

But one performance I was especially impressed with was Natalie Portman’s as Elizabeth, the woman Rick had wronged. After all these years, Portman remains a wonderfully vulnerable actress who is incapable of faking an emotion. She makes you feel the pain Elizabeth goes through, and you can’t take your eyes off of her for one second.

“Knight of Cups” proves to have a more straightforward narrative than Malick’s other films, and that’s saying something. His last film, “To the Wonder,” was good, but it meandered all over the place as he couldn’t decide which story was the more important one to tell. This time, however, he manages to stay with Rick and his romantic adventures for the majority of the film’s running time. It does veer off slightly when we get introduced to Antonio Banderas who plays the ironically named Tonio, a playboy who loves the company of more than just one woman. Considering Banderas’ recent stormy divorce from Melanie Griffith, his part in this film feels a bit voyeuristic as it seems like he is simply playing himself and explaining why his marriage to her fell apart.

“Knight of Cups” doesn’t reach the cinematic heights of “The Tree of Life” or “Days of Heaven,” but it is still a must for Malick’s fans as few other filmmakers can make a movie the way he can. Some will call it self-indulgent and complain it focuses on individuals who have it a lot better than the working class of America, but for those who relate to the journey Rick takes here, it is an immersive experience which leaves you guessing as to the possibilities open to him at the film’s conclusion.

It’s also worth watching to see characters drive their cars on the empty roads of Los Angeles at night. Anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows the roads are never that empty during the day, so it’s nice to know they are not always a traffic nightmare.

* * * ½ out of * * * *