I understand that this weekend marks the long-awaited-by-me Scarlett Johansson film festival, wherein Ms. Johansson stars not only in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which sounds like one of her bigger chunks of Black Widow screentime so far) but also Under the Skin, which, as the trailers foolishly point out, comes from the director of Birth. (Anyone who, like me, in any way wants to replicate the experience of watching Birth, trust me, is well aware that Skin comes from the same Jonathan Glazer who hasn’t made a movie in almost a decade, probably not least in part because of Birth.) Despite the Glazer picture, this is a big year for Action Johansson: she’s starring in a Luc Besson movie come August; she’s made a decent action heroine as Black Widow, but I wonder if Johansson’s bills-paying action gigs, which did not appear to be in her future circa Ghost World or The Man Who Wasn’t There, irritate the occasional lady who tries to make a go of bona fide action stardom—once and possibly future MMA fighter Gina Carano, for example.
Carano has a movie coming out in limited release this weekend called In the Blood, though all production signs (the movie is cocredited to Anchor Bay and the home-video division of Fox) point to this being a cursory run in advance of its debut on disc. Direct-to-disc has apparently become something of a breeding ground for unfussy, well-choreographed meat-and-potatoes action flicks starring the likes of Scott Adkins, and because I can’t watch the continuing adventures of Mallory Kane, the black-ops freelancer Carano played in Steven Soderbergh’s excellent Haywire, I will gladly watch stuff like In the Blood.
In fact, for the first half of the movie, I was into its seedy vibe and reflecting in Carano’s steely appeal. She has a compelling physical presence, which in turn lends her a naturalistic air—she’s not posing as a badass; she is one—even when her line readings don’t zing. She has the coiled quality of an action star; you wait for her to get backed into a corner and fight her way out. Here she plays a recovering addict, trained to fight by her hard-ass father (Stephen Lang), who marries another recovering addict (Cam Gigandet), who goes missing on their island honeymoon (after some cavorting montages that look, it must be said, a little like a Valtrex commercial), through a bizarre zipline-related conspiracy that plays, rather enjoyably, like low-rent Hitchcock. More importantly, it presents the perfect opportunity for Carano to fight her way through the underworld and retrieve her damsbro in distress.
But while the movie feels like it’s gearing up for ass-kicking, it veers more toward bleak vengeance drama, and its “action” is more torture-based than brawl-centric. Stunningly, Carano gets all of two abbreviated fight scenes. The rest of the time, she’s on more of a Liam Neeson-style rampage through a foreign country (though Neeson’s Taken character probably did more hand-to-hand in that movie than Carano does here). It’s a weirdly common action movie trope: hire an action star with great physicality to slowly, methodically, gracelessly kill, emphasizing violence over movement. The actually exciting bits, like Carano getting into a nightclub scrape or craftily escaping from police custody on a boat, look obligatory. Even run-ins with Luis Guzman (underplaying, speaking slowly) and Danny Trejo (doing little more than a walk-on), are bathed in generic grimness.
In other words, it’s just another day at the beach for director John Stockwell, who, following his respectable teen drama crazy/beautiful, has confined himself to sunny environs, often with blood on the sand. His blue period (by which I mean Blue Crush and Into the Blue) was sort of fun, but Turistas was a horror slog, Dark Tide with Halle Berry was murky and thrill-free, and now In the Blood has grit without punch. Maybe this movie is designed more for Carano to flex her acting muscles rather than her actual muscles, but Haywire illustrated how in the right movie, action can become characterization. If she’s going to position herself as a viable, real-world alternative to the effects-enhanced Scarlett Johanssons of the world, she’s gonna have to fight for it.