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?
Follow Jen Yamato on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.