With MMA-themed 'Haywire,' Soderbergh tries a new trick
Over the last decade, Steven Soderbergh has made big studio thrillers ("Contagion," the "Ocean's" movies) and small quirkfests ("Bubble," "The Girlfriend Experience").
Can he do them both at the same time?
That's the question surrounding "Haywire," a Jan. 20 release that world-premiered at a sneak AFI screening on Sunday night with directors and stars in attendance. An action thriller about a globetrotting female assassin--but with arty elements--the Relativity Media film contains each of the Soderbergh strains.
The studio quotient is satisfied by the locations (Dublin, Barcelona, Washington), the stars (Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum) and the general Bourne-ishness and "Salt"-iness of the premise, in which ... well, it's complicated, but basically said assassin hopscotches to distant locales and fends off, with a pugilistic flourish, the enemies lurking in the shadows.
But "Haywire' is also a film with the offbeat sensibility of Soderbergh's smaller work, a sensibility evident right from the opening scene in an upstate New York diner. Even more tellingly, like "Bubble" and "Girlfriend" (the latter of course sought to reconstruct adult-film star Sasha Grey as a mainstream actress) "Haywire" is fashioned around a first-timer -- the mixed-martial arts star Gina Carano, whom Soderbergh spotted while watching some televised fights and decided to build a movie around.
As Soderbergh put it at a post-screening question-and-answer session" "She's a natural beauty, and she beats people to a pulp in a cage. Why wouldn't you want to build a movie around her?"
The result is a spy thriller that has elements of "Warrior," not to mention Spike TV. Carano's heroine flips off walls and locks enemies in jujitsu leg vises. (The athlete herself seemed a little cowed by it all on Sunday night: "All of this is surreal," she told the audience after the screening. "I'm a little overwhelmed.")
Whether the MMA aspects and the larger thriller conceit will make audiences want to run out to this movie as much as they did "Contagion" ($74 million domestic) or even "The Informant!" ($33 million) remains to be seen. And those movies are the templates: For all their novelty, "Bubble" and "Girlfriend" were exceedingly niche films, critical curios but not mainstream plays.
Soderbergh has more commercial designs here, as he suggested when he offered his explanation for making "Haywire" in the first place.
"Why is Angelina currently the only woman who's allowed to run around with a gun and beat people up?" he said, suggesting the kind of star and category of film he had in mind. "Someone 20 years ago put Steven Seagal in a movie," he continued. "Why don't we step it up?"
Photo: Gina Carano in "Haywire." Credit: Relativity Media