According to official Haywire lore director Steven Soderbergh chanced upon the woman who would become the star of his breakneck action-thriller one night while watching television. Which isn’t entirely unusual except that Soderbergh wasn’t watching some obscure indie film or BBC miniseries but a bout of women’s mixed martial arts fighting. So impressed was he at the sight of Gina Carano an American Gladiators alum turned cage fighter that he had the Haywire script from The Limey writer Lem Dobbs reworked to accommodate her casting.
In the film a conventional spy-gone-rogue tale made unconventional by its director and star Carano plays Mallory Kane a black-ops freelancer who seeks vengeance against her betrayers upon being double-crossed. Watching her in action it’s easy to see why Soderbergh was so enamored. Carano is a physical marvel: strong and agile a skilled fighter and grappler with the face of a model and the shoulders of a linebacker. Having grown accustomed to waif-like action heroines played unconvincingly by the likes of Beckinsale Jovovich and Jolie it’s refreshing to witness an actress who can deliver a knockout blow – and take one – with some credulity.
And Carano kicks a staggering amount of ass in Haywire. In the film’s many fight scenes Soderbergh prefers wide angles and long takes the better to showcase his star’s talent for violence. There are no shaky-cam close-ups to cheat the action and the sound is almost strictly diegetic lending each of Carano’s brawls (and they are brawls messy and destructive) a brutal verisimilitude.
It’s when the action stops in Haywire that Carano’s deficiencies as an actress become apparent – she’s wooden and flat well beyond the requirements of her coldly efficient character – and so Soderbergh labors conspicuously to ensure it hardly ever does. When Mallory Kane isn’t fighting she’s running a fugitive agent scrambling to find out who engineered her downfall even as threats amass against her. Each lengthy pursuit is stylishly photographed from a variety of exotic angles (my favorite being an extended tracking shot of Carano facing the
camera in the center of the frame as if to say “Jesus would you look at her?”) Hitchcockian chase sequences to cleanse our palate in between the film's bloody skirmishes.
Carano’s dialogue is wisely kept spare her expressions limited exclusively to icy stares and Mona Lisa smiles. Most of the talking is done by her co-stars an impressive lot that includes Ewan McGregor as her boss and former lover Channing Tatum as a fellow freelancer and Michael Fassbender as a British agent with whom she partners on a dubious mission. All three eventually end up in combat with her and it’s hardly a spoiler to say they don’t fare well. Against a figure as formidable as Carano Obi-wan Kenobi G.I. Joe and Magneto don’t stand a chance.
In the political thriller The Ides of March – George Clooney’s adaptation of the stage drama Farragut North – Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers campaign press secretary to Mike Morris (Clooney) a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Savvy self-assured and blessed with a preternatural ability to spin a story in his candidate’s favor Stephen is a fast-rising figure with a dazzlingly bright future. Unlike his more seasoned – and cynical – campaign-manager boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Stephen all of 30 years old still boasts something of an idealistic streak. He believes in Morris not just as a meal ticket but as someone who just might make the world a better place.
Stephen’s idealism and ambition come into conflict when in the feverish days leading up to the pivotal Ohio primary he suffers a series of judgment lapses that threaten to derail his promising career. Teased with the prospect of a job offer he’s lured into a meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) the campaign manager of Morris’ main Democratic rival – a major no-no in a business that prizes loyalty above all else. Later he beds a beguiling young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) who unwittingly drops a bombshell that could very well bring down the entire Morris campaign.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory about Ides of March. Our eyes were long ago opened to the amorality and viciousness of electoral politics. And goodness knows we’ve witnessed political scandals far more salacious than anything depicted in the film. Ides of March’s strength lies in the power of its storytelling in the way that Clooney brings together several distinctive headstrong characters and sets them against each other in a riveting game of intrigue. It helps compensate for the been-there done-that familiarity of the topics explored.
Clooney is very much an actor’s director and Ides of March is a testament to how absorbing it can be to witness skilled performers operating at the peak of their powers. Gosling is particularly fascinating to watch as his character awakens to the severity of his predicament. When Stephen is dismissed from the Morris campaign after Zara learns of his meeting with Duffy the firing triggers in him something akin to a fight-or-flight instinct. His livelihood endangered he scrambles to outwit his former colleagues seizing upon tragedy and scandal to worm his way back into the fold. All pretense of idealism vanishes and his expression betrays the slightest hint of derangement. The game has claimed him.
Loosely based on the (rather lame) 1960 Rat Pack film dashing understated-but-cool thief Danny Ocean (George Clooney) orchestrates the most sophisticated elaborate casino heist in history less than 24 hours after being released from jail. In one night Danny's handpicked 11-man crew of specialists--including an ace card sharp (Brad Pitt) a young-but-masterful pickpocket (Matt Damon) and a demolition genius (Don Cheadle)--will attempt to steal over $150 million from three Las Vegas casinos owned by Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) the elegant ruthless entrepreneur who just happens to be dating Danny's ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts). To score the cash Danny will have to risk his life and risk his chance of ever reconciling with Tess. But if all goes according to his intricate nearly impossible plan Danny won't have to choose between his stake in the heist and his high-stakes reunion with Tess. Or will he?
The star wattage in this movie could solve all of California's electricity problems in one fell swoop. George Clooney easily passes himself off as suave mastermind Danny Ocean playing the role with understated class and elegance. Brad Pitt takes a similar arc as Rusty though he's slightly more dispassionate and professional than Clooney's visionary Ocean. Matt Damon is convincing as the inexperienced-but-talented pickpocket who's essential to getting in the vault. And Julia is simply Julia--glamorous and charming a smart cookie who is being wooed by the evil ruthless (and anal-retentive) casino mogul so elegantly portrayed by Andy Garcia. Affecting a Cockney accent and attitude Don Cheadle's portrayal of the demolition expert is a tour de force. Carl Reiner is absolutely hilarious as Saul Bloom an aging old-timer who comes out of retirement to infiltrate the casino as a debonair arms dealer. Elliott Gould Bernie Mac Scott Caan and Casey Affleck round out the cast nicely with inspired performances especially Gould's and Mac's.
Soderbergh cemented his reputation last year as a director of serious weight when both Traffic and Erin Brockovich were nominated for the Best Film Academy Award and garnered him two Best Director nominations---an unprecedented feat. Ocean's Eleven marks Soderbergh's departure from the serious to the seriously fun. This is one of the most stylish most elegantly filmed movies I have ever seen. Not only are all the actors beautiful but so are the locations clothes and shot selections. The speed and pacing of the flick belie the movie's length; Soderbergh clearly had fun making this movie. He shot this film very intimately often allowing the camera to stay close on the actors a tad longer than expected which lets their personas shine through--thus their personalities draw you into the movie as much as the caper itself. It's not often you see a movie where the direction has as much wit and cleverness as the plot itself. Ocean's Eleven makes no pretense to be something other than a jaunty cheeky exhilarating heist movie. So while the plot's not too deep all is forgiven considering the level of acting and direction.