Your Genre-Riffic, Genre-Riffing Weekend at the Movies

01/20/2012 12:06 PM |

theylivefight.jpg

Haywire: Can we insist that Steven Soderbergh’s hiatus be as brief and efficient as his shooting schedules? Whenever he gets in the middle of one of his frequent filmmaking jags, as he is now (with Contagion, Haywire, and summer’s Magic Mike all coming within a twelve-month period), his movies start overlapping and informing each other with hyperlink speed. Haywire is basically an icier Bourne movie, only instead of buddy Matt Damon, he hires Gina Carano, MMA fighter, building a movie around a non-actor, Girlfriend Experience style. Like Girlfriend’s Sasha Grey, Carano has a bit of a flat affect—at ease in front of the camera but clearly not a trained actor—and as in that movie, Soderbergh reveals character by zeroing in on his leading lady’s face. Early in the movie, when her character, Mallory Kane, takes off in pursuit of a fleeing bad guy, Soderbergh fixes the camera on Carano’s dogged expression, tracking backwards to keep her dead-center of the frame, as if to say: this is what an action heroine looks like. In a way, Carano’s Mallory is the inverse of Grey’s Chelsea/Christine: she can’t fake it.

Mallory spends much of the movie on the run; after a rescue mission in Barcelona, she gets double-crossed by her private contractor boss, and she must fight her way through police, fellow agents, and anyone else in her way. Her opponents, in one way or another, include Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Ewan McGregor; the wonder is not, as with recent-period Angelina Jolie, that a skinny chick is taking on all these dudes but rather that the likes of Fassbender or Tatum hold their own for longer than a few seconds. Soderbergh neither artificially draws out these fights nor speeds the action up to superhuman levels; as a result, it feels like we’re actually watching Carano punch, kick, drive—even run across rooftops, as in a scrappy yet, with Soderbergh’s overcast cinematography under his nom de photographique Peter Andrews, quite elegant Dublin chase sequence. Soderbergh uses his Traffic/Contagion color-coding system to give each of the movie’s many locations its own gorgeous hue, and Carano cuts a surprisingly iconic figure in each one.

Reunited with Lem Dobbs, the screenwriter of The Limey nearly as famous for the contentious commentary track on that movie’s DVD, Soderbergh does a similar job of thin-slicing and scrambling a simple vengeance narrative, though not so impressionistically this time. The Dobbs dialogue is spare, but often dryly witty, especially when spoken by Michael Douglas in low-key smoothie mode. In the end, Haywire doesn’t have The Limey‘s elegiac mood or sense of time slipping away. For that matter, it lacks the weary romance of Out of Sight or the sadness and panic of Contagion; it’s perhaps the most genre-riffic of Soderbergh’s genre riffs. It’s also ridiculous enjoyable, sending 70s cool and 80s exploitation through the director’s formal filters. As far as I’m concerned, Carano and Soderbergh can follow the same advice: keep knocking ‘em out.

de_underworld_kw.jpg

Underworld: Awakening: I would happily report on the quality of Beckinsale 4 Leather as it compares to Haywire as a woman-fronted action movie, but Sony generally sidesteps screening this series for critics, at least with proper notice; I saw the third movie at an early-morning “courtesy screening” on opening day. I’m not sure why they’re given such shabby treatment, except that the first Underworld, almost ten years ago, got bad if not horrendous notices; But I liked the third one, especially since the medieval setting necessitated a laying down of firearms, which is to say: how fucking dumb is it that the werewolves and vampires fight each other with bullets? But that was more of a first-Underworld problem.

In any case, fine, Sony, I’ll go out and pay for Underworld: Awakening this weekend so I can review it (and also because I want to), although I wish it was easier to find in 2-D; I’m sure the glasses won’t do any favors to the black-and-blue color scheme. I don’t remember much about what happens in the first three Underworld movies (some fragments: guns; leather; rubbery werewolves; Kate Beckinsale kinda-naked but not naked-naked; Scott Speedman whispering; shirtless Michael Sheen screaming; Kate Beckinsale lookalike, also kinda naked), but I’m sure Awakening will remind me, by repeatedly rehashing their stories. This one finds Selene (Beckinsale) waking up to a world where humans hunt vampires and werewolves (so: a world not unlike every other world where vampires and werewolves exist), and so the vampires and werewolves, former adversaries after backstory explained in all three movies but especially the first and third, must consider teaming up to save themselves. I really am curious as to how the humans get spun as the bad guys in this situation, but hey, whatever Leather-Clad Kate Beckinsale says!

By the way, in 2012 we’re getting entries in both of the signature Screen Gems Lady Asskickers Franchise. Resident Evil and Underworld usually alternate years, sort of like how James Bond and Star Trek used to share custody of being the holiday action movie, but the stars have aligned and we’re getting our January and September in one fantastical year.

Red Tails: I read the Times Magazine profile of George Lucas this week, and it made me think of Red Tails as a one-last-job movie. The movie itself is an entirely different subgenre, no less worn and perhaps even creakier: the plucky WWII combat-pilot movie. The African-American pilots of this movie aren’t looking for one last job; they’re eager to join the fray and serve their country, et cetera. But Lucas himself, who executive produced the movie after developing it for some two decades, seems perpetually on the verge of his one final mainstream crowd-pleaser. First Revenge of the Sith would mark the end of his Star Wars period and usher in the oddball experimental projects he’s been talking up vaguely for years. Then he was going to have one more crack at Indiana Jones. Now it’s Red Tails, and that’s it! He swears! This is his last hurrah as a purveyor of big-budget blockbusters! Unless of course this movie is a big hit and can inspire the prequel and sequel he’s been thinking about! Or if Spielberg wants to do another Indiana Jones! But apart from those, he’s done! Experimental movies! Coming up!

thx_1138.jpg

Far be it from me to speculate on the actual contents of Lucas’s brain and whether he actually has any experimental/personal/oddball projects buzzing around up there, or whether he just kind of assumes that if he stops making spectacles, the personal stuff will come trickling back. Regardless, it seems clear that a pet project like Red Tails, no matter its gee-whiz innocence, is close to Lucas’s heart, and during the movie I found myself wondering why Lucasfilm doesn’t do more of these big-but-not-that-big-budget genre movies. Not because it’s particularly good: Red Tails has a little retro-40s zip with the expected tech upgrades (the effects don’t look strictly realistic, but they look uniform and of a piece, which is really more important) and runs through its thin characters and story clichés with some energy, but it mostly just recycles that stuff with intense earnestness. The Star Wars and Indy pictures did this too, of course, but they had B-movie universes to imagine and play with, and stronger character types. Red Tails doesn’t want to weigh itself down with historical solemnity and hooray for that, but it’s still not quite irreverent enough to be, you know, fun. (That multiple serious film critics would write a (justifiably) negative review of Red Tails tagged with sentiments like “well, at least it’s better than the prequels” speaks to the dire insistence on carving backlash into stone: rather than admire the imagination, design, and moral murkiness of the Star Wars prequels as compared to Red Tails, let’s just be happy this equally cornball affair doesn’t have any dumb aliens for stupid babies! More than underselling the prequels, it oversells this new movie.)

So given the likable but middling Red Tails, why would I clamor for more Lucasfilm productions? Because the approach is actually pretty neat, at least in theory: reviving a musty genre with new technology and minimal big-studio tinkering. But Lucas is still in one-last-job mode—in the Times story, he sounds wounded by rejection, whether it’s internet nerds raging against the prequels or studios refusing to help finance a mid-budget passion project from a world-famous film icon (Fox is just distributing). But I’d submit that some of the disappointment has to do with his mystique, the way that his name has only been attached to four movies in any capacity in the past ten years—a busier period than most (his name is on two movies for the entirety of the 90s, and a comparatively whopping ten in the 80s). Like a disappointing album by a band that only does them every four or five years, Red Tails feels more like a missed opportunity when you consider that it’s Lucas’s passion project, first produced movie in four years, and/or possible swan song. I’m skeptical about his claim that the movie doing well will lead to more all-black casts for bigger-budget movies (though it would be great if that happened); more realistically, I’m just hoping the movie does well enough to convince Lucas that making movies is, you know, a pretty cool job.