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

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.

However deadly in vengeance, Rooney Mara's fetchingly asocial goth-punk-crypto hacker genius is in no way as scary as the former cage fighter unleashed — most spectacularly in the extended hotel-suite-smashing brawl with Michael Fassbender, himself a notably physical actor. "You shouldn't think of her as a woman," Ewan McGregor's character had cautioned Fassbender's. "That would be a mistake." Indeed. "If there's a widening of the range of women's ability to express, articulate, and represent their own aggression, this would mean an expansion in the identity 'woman,'" art historian Maud Lavin wrote in her 2010 study "Push Comes to Shove: New Images of Aggressive Women." And that's something Carano certainly does, even as her singularity reinforces her character's situation as a woman in a man's world.

No doubt "Haywire's" main attraction is watching Carano kick male movie star butt — but that's not all that sets it apart. Carano is the only nonactor in the movie's dramatic scenes and the only professional athlete in its fights. (There were no stand-ins or inserts, per Soderbergh; Fassbender had "a little bit" of protective padding and Ewan McGregor's stunt double was never used.) To watch Carano in "Haywire" is to watch a performer go in and out of her comfort zone. ("The fighting isn't faked, but the acting is," in Toronto Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey's witty formulation.)

On one hand, "Haywire" is a location-rich, bargain-basement Bond flick. On the other, it's a sort of documentary. As opposed to the frantic fragmentation of most action films, notably those of the Bourne cycle, "Haywire" would surely be approved by the great apostle of cinematic realism, André Bazin. The choreographed mayhem is not constructed in the editing but pondered as it happens: The camera position is fixed, the lens is wide, the shots are long. Soderbergh, who serves as his own director of photography, says that his camerawork "keys off what the actors are doing." He calls this "subjective filmmaking" and it imbues an action movie like "Haywire" with a sense of process and existential bravado. "Haywire" is one fight film in which you get to watch people think — the director included.

In the 23 years since "sex, lies, and videotape," Soderbergh has become a realist in more ways than one. "They were right," he said, without rancor, of "Moneyball's" producers. "They got what they wanted." Moneyball grossed $75.5 million in 2011, just behind Soderbergh's post-9/11 disaster film (and skillful ensemble drama) "Contagion" and just ahead of "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never." It's been nominated for four major Oscars, including best picture. "Haywire" took in a tepid $8.4 million on its first weekend and viewers gave it a CinemaScore of D-plus. "Moneyball" may be what Hollywood imagines it does best, but "Haywire" demonstrates what movies do best. Baggage and all, it's the living, breathing real thing.

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