Soderbergh at AFI Fest: Angelina Jolie Meets Steven Seagal in Haywire's Gina Carano

AFI Fest's "secret" screening of Steven Soderbergh's Haywire wasn't so much a showcase for the AFI darling as it was a coming out party for MMA bruiser-cum-action heroine Gina Carano, whom Soderbergh glimpsed fighting one night on TV and subsequently built a star-studded spy thriller pic around. But it's hard to say if first-time actor Carano will branch out in a film career beyond the often lo-fi action experiment. Is she a hybrid of Angelina Jolie and Steven Seagal, as Soderbergh suggested Sunday night? Or is there more of a Cynthia Rothrock quality to Carano's steely gaze and powerhouse physicality?

Haywire, which will be released by Relativity on January 20, follows spy/assassin Mallory (Carano) as she treks the globe after a double-cross, attempting to unravel the mystery of who betrayed and set her up on a recent job, and why. Through a series of flashbacks, past operations unfold with plenty of opportunity to watch Carano in action: pummeling grown men and fellow spies, parkouring across the rooftops of Europe, killing with a cold precision tempered by righteous motivations (and a conscience, of course), all while taking her fair share of bone-crunching blows along the way.

While Carano's dramatic scenes leave something to be desired (her character seems to be written around her dry delivery and limited acting chops, similar to the more experienced but icy star of Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, Sasha Grey), the cast around her steps in to elevate the proceedings. There's Ewan McGregor as Mallory's boss and ex-flame, a private subcontractor who sells assassinations and spy ops to the likes of Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas's shady government types. Channing Tatum is kind of great as a fellow spy who toes the company line when Mallory goes rogue. Michael Fassbender's performance as an MI6 agent who may or may not be trustworthy is another highlight with a particularly memorable fight scene, while Bill Paxton, Michael Angarano, and Mathieu Kassovitz round out the cast with solid supporting turns.

The plot twists and turns its way around familiar spy genre tropes, courtesy of Lem Dobbs (Kafka, The Limey, Dark City), who had to reverse-engineer the story because, as Soderbergh requested, "She need[ed] to beat her way through the cast." While the unraveling conspiracy and spy games are nothing new and serviceable at best, where Haywire excels -- and has the most unadulterated fun -- is in reveling in the sight of watching Carano take on her famous co-stars in close-quarters combat. They may outperform her with character work and the spoken word, but no accomplished actor in the cast can conjure the pure glee of Carano believably tossing grown men around, or kicking an enemy -- one played by an Oscar-hopeful in this year's awards race, no less -- clear through a glass-paned door.

Conjuring everything from Jolie to Seagal to early Bond films ("the From Russia with Love era"), Soderbergh explained the impetus for making his relatively low-budget action pic at a post-screening Q&A, where stars Carano, Michael Fassbender, and Ewan McGregor joined him for a chat moderated by The Informant co-star Joel McHale.


"I'd just been fired off a movie," said Soderbergh (said movie was Moneyball, later directed by Bennett Miller). Catching Carano fight one evening, he had the idea of putting her into a spy action picture. "I just thought, wow -- somebody should really build a movie around this woman. She's kind of amazing. She's a natural beauty and she beats people into a pulp in a cage."

"There were two things that were motivating," he said. "One is, why is Angelina the only woman currently who's allowed to run around with a gun and beat people up? And the other is, somebody 20 years ago decided to put Steven Seagal in a movie -- [he'd] never been in a movie..."

The Haywire Q&A took a turn for the silly itself with McHale at the helm, yielding topics ranging from Seagal's reality TV show (revelation of the night: Michael Fassbender is aware that Steven Seagal: Lawman exists) to the goat balls McGregor once ate on his own reality show, Long Way Down. Then there was Soderbergh's lengthy faux lament of Kim Kardashian's divorce ("I almost didn't come tonight... we're all in a period of mourning. I've been on some miserable shoots, and 72 days is a long time") and his vague insinuation about real-life privateers and the financiers of Haywire: "Let's just say the guy who funded this movie, his country's now run by someone else."

The best anecdote from the filming of Haywire, perhaps? McGregor recalled a choreographed fight scene in which he accidentally clipped Carano with a punch. "I punched her right in the head," he said. "She came straight up and she went, 'Are you okay?'"

"And she was right, I really fucking hurt my hand. She didn't even feel it!"

Could the same be said about Angelina Jolie... or Steven Seagal, for that matter?

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  • Bry says:

    Funny how Soderbergh & Carano have been taking digs at Angelina for months while promoting this film. Too bad for them, this film's entire total probably won't won't even top Salt's opening weekend numbers at the box office.

  • Andy says:

    Maybe not, I bet it will be a better movie though. Jolie is terrible and I can't buy her as an action hero.

  • Andy says:

    I think it's more that watching a 115 pound woman beat up a guy and watching a 145 pound woman beat up a guy..there's a big difference...I didn't really take his comments to be 'pot shots' more telling that no one mentioned Milla Jovovich, Kate Beckinsale or some of the other females that have done action...

  • Bry says:

    Obviously they bring Jolie's name up for press and attention- she's undeniably one of the biggest movie stars in the world. It's not gonna work. Jolie is the only female action star that gets asses in seats in huge numbers (Jovovich does OK in Resident Evil but still hasn't even come close to $100m domestic- something Jolie has done about 5 times, and with original non-franchise films at that). There's a reason for that. Maybe she's not roided up like Carano but she has an intensity that you can't deny and can carry the non-action sequences as well.

  • Jen Yamato says:

    I've seen all of the actresses mentioned above in their best action star turns, and there's still something loads more believable about watching Carano in fight mode. The punches look real, and they look like they hurt. It's less about grace and more precision and power and a real physical presence.
    That said, I don't really think people go watch Angelina Jolie action because she looks like a realistic killer/athlete/assassin/whatever. You go to watch ANGELINA JOLIE do whatever. The only good action moment in Salt was when she broke out the shoe knife.

  • Bry says:

    You didn't like when she choked the guy out at the end, with the hand-cuffs? That was pretty damn brutal.

  • yeah says:

    How much did Salt cost and how much did it make and compare it when this film comes out?
    I remember Jolie's delusional fans saying Salt would make more money than Inception.

  • You only know what you are told by the press, so what you are saying you beleive evrything on the news, how sad for you.

  • FJ says:

    I was too busy thinking "the same person that could only jump 6 inches off a wall for a superman punch, can now leap like that?!"
    Btw, it ain't potshots to when pointing out a clear lack of suspension of disbelief. 'Salt' was supposed to be lead by a male but apparently the 2nd unit wasn't informed of the change to a 105lb. woman.

  • F.J says:

    yeah, thanks for the reminder that one of the top grossing actresses can act.