Few filmmakers have been more alert to the possibilities of working with non-professional actors than Steven Soderbergh. His 2005 Bubble was an exercise in trailer-park vérité, and the 2009 Girlfriend Experience provided a crossover showcase for porn star Sasha Grey. Now Soderbergh has constructed a high-profile action picture around Mixed Martial Arts icon Gina Carano, a woman alarmingly skilled in the ways of head-kicking, gut-punching, throat-wringing and related modes of cage-match devastation. Unlike Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry, and other movie-land action chicks of the past, Carano demonstrates beyond doubt that if called upon, she actually could put you in the hospital.
Haywire is an old-school spy-versus-spy espionage tale. It would be nice if the story (scripted by Lem Dobbs, who previously wrote Soderbergh's Kafka and The Limey) made a little more sense; at some points you might wish it made any sense at all. Carano plays Mallory Kane, a black-ops specialist in the employ of an international security firm run by her shifty onetime boyfriend Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). When a shadowy figure named Coblenz (Michael Douglas) commissions Mallory's services in extracting a Chinese journalist from bad-guy captivity in Barcelona, Kenneth dispatches her there with a team that includes the prickly hunk Aaron (Channing Tatum); she's also told to coordinate with an ambiguous local character named Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas). The operation is a suitably tense undertaking, crowned by a back-alley smackdown in which Mallory, in an explosion of leg-sweeps and gob-smashes, reduces an oppo gunman to twitching insensibility. This is pretty great to watch, let me tell you.
Back in the States, Mallory is redeployed to Dublin to join a British intel agent named Paul (Michael Fassbender) in taking down a French operative named Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz) for reasons that remain unclear for rather too long. At the end of this mission – which includes one of the wildest close-quarter brawls outside of the Bourne movies—Mallory discovers she's been set up by someone to take the fall for a serious lapse with which she had nothing to do. Scared and angry, she flees to New Mexico to seek refuge with her dad (Bill Paxton), a mild-mannered adventure novelist. Here there's a showdown—which continues in South America, and then Majorca—in which the jumbled plot elements attempt to come together, with only partial success. (For one thing, you may be left wondering why, in cutaways throughout the film, Mallory keeps revealing everything about her hush-hush capers to the terrified driver of a car she's hijacked.)
Still, it's a rousing movie, and the first thing you might want to know about it is: Can Carano act? Well, since it is an action flick, I think that question can be answered with two words: Chuck Norris. Carano's expressive abilities may be limited (at the moment), but they're sufficient unto the needs of her character, who can express herself quite effectively by snapping a man's neck with her knee. And because of Carano's real-world battle skills, the director is able to capture her fight scenes in extended mid-range shots, with no need for stunt doubles, wire trickery or fast-cut concealments. The action is entirely convincing.
Carano also has a sweet smile (and surprisingly un-mashed features, given her brutal ring exploits); and in the course of two brief romantic interludes and some affectionate interaction with Paxton, she shows promise of continuing development as an actress. The unsatisfying conclusion of Haywire virtually mandates a sequel. (Soderbergh says he has no interest in doing one, but would happily consult.) If that doesn't work out, the producers of the long-brewing Wonder Woman movie are in the market for someone to play their formidable title character. On the basis of Carano's performance in this film, I'd say that search should be over.
Red Tails tells an important World War II story of brave black soldiers chafing at the constraints of government-enforced racial segregation. It's gratifying to see this true story told, with a complement of able black actors, in a movie to which the name of Tyler Perry is not appended.
So it's too bad the picture is so resolutely old-fashioned and meanderingly paced (it's a first feature by director Anthony Hemingway), and that it's afflicted with distracting absurdities.
The story begins in Italy in 1944, with a unit of black fighter pilots – the Tuskegee Airmen – cooling their heels far from the combat action (the official military view being that "Negroes" are incapable of flying missions, operating complex machinery or much else, and are in addition cowardly by nature). Some of the airmen, like Captain "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), are resigned to such systemic racism; but one of them, a kid called Lightning (David Oyelowo), can't disguise his smoldering fury.(He's an avatar of the Civil Rights era to come.) Meanwhile, a senior officer, Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), looks on, smoking a kindly pipe, while the unit's commander, Colonel Bullard (Terence Howard), is away in Washington fighting the Pentagon brass for more meaningful duties for his men.
Bullard eventually gets his way, and his pilots are soon flying combat support for bombing runs against dug-in German forces. (When the unit is belatedly given up-to-date aircraft to fly, the men paint the tails of them red.) The Tuskegees acquit themselves valiantly (as the real Tuskegee airmen did), and soon—all too soon, I'd say—the white pilots who initially derided them with racist epithets are glad-handing them as buddies.
The movie is filled with impressive computer-assisted aerial-combat sequences punctuated by cockpit close-ups of the Tuskegee pilots (their radio face masks helpfully pulled aside so we can keep track of who's who). Also on hand is one snarling German pilot ("Show no mercy!") to represent the Evil Hun in all his arrogant variety.
The movie is undermined by several implausibilities. Flying over a village on one run, Lightning looks down and sees a pretty Italian girl gazing up at his plane and waving. After arriving back at the Tuskegee base, he immediately returns to the village and goes right to her door. And before very long at all he and the girl, Sofia (Daniela Ruah), have fallen in love—even though she speaks not a word of English, nor Lightning a word of Italian. And while Easy is depicted as drowning his despair in whiskey, he never appears to be drunk; so instead of seeming a man with an out-of-hand drinking problem, he appears to be simply a man with an ever-present drink in his hand. There are also a few close shots featuring one of the airmen playing a guitar – or at least running his fingers up and down the instrument's fretboard, without forming the chords we hear (an old-fashioned cheat in itself).
For a war movie, Red Tails is surprisingly low on grit; it's too amiable and light-weight. The actors are fine (Oyelowo has a sly comic spirit, and Howard brings a compelling gravity to his scenes). Despite their best efforts, though, the movie taxis around mildly without ever achieving lift-off.