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by Peter Sobczynski

"Queen Of The Hill"
5 stars

Over the years, Steven Soderbergh has worked with many of the biggest-name actors around--some efforts like "Traffic," "Contagion" and the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise have been so jam-packed with top-level stars that each one could personally fuel a year's worth of "Vanity Fair" covers. On the other hand, he has also shown a fascination for creating films based around people who are either complete unknowns or who are famous for their efforts in different types of work. For example, he shot the low-budget drama "Bubble" with a group of unknown locals from the small Ohio town where he did the filming and for "The Girlfriend Experiment," a look at a few days in the life of a high-priced call girl trying to manage her professional and personal lives, he recruited porn star Sasha Grey to take on the central role. In both cases, the end results were far more engrossing and exciting to watch than if they had featured the old familiar faces in those roles

For his latest effort, he has once again chosen to cast his net outside the usual pool of actors by recruiting Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts fighter whose most prominent previous role was as "Crush" on the short-lived revival of "American Gladiators," and creating an action film around her talents. Considering the meager number of athletes who have successfully made the transition to the big screen over the years--a feat that not even the likes of Muhammad Ali, Pele or Michael Jordan could quite pull off--this would seem to be an act of pure foolishness on Soderbergh's part but whatever impulse it was that he was following this time around, it was once again the correct one because the resulting film, "Haywire," is a breathlessly exciting and hugely entertaining action thriller and a good part of the reason for its success is due to its endlessly charismatic and compelling star.

The film starts off in the most ordinary manner possible as a young woman (Carano) steps into a remote diner in upstate New York and sits down for a cup of coffee. A few minutes later, a guy (Channing Tatum) walks in and sits down at her booth. They appear to be old acquaintances and engage in a bit of enigmatic chit-chat before he begins smacking her around and attempting to drag her out of the place. Good Samaritan bystander Scott (Michael Angarano) steps in and creates enough of a distraction for the woman to get the upper hand on her attacker and make her escape with Scott in his car. As they are speeding away, she begins to explain to Scott who she is and what led up to the events that he just witnessed. Her name is Mallory Kane and she is a highly trained combatant who left the military and who is now working for a shadowy security firm that goes in and does the kind of jobs that the government cannot officially be tied to in any way. For one of her most recent jobs, she and Aaron, the guy she was pounding on in the diner, were sent off were by the mysterious Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), on the recommendation of top government official Coblenz (Michael Douglas), to go to Barcelona and rescue a kidnapped Chinese journalist. The job doesn't go completely smoothly-they never do--but in the end, Mallory and Aaron are able to free the target and deliver him safely to Rodrigo.

After returning home, Mallory is contacted by her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), to head off immediately to Dublin for a cushy new assignment that calls for her to do little more than glam herself up and serve as eye candy for suave Irish agent Paul (Michael Fassbender). The job sounds almost too good to be true and Mallory begins to suspect that she is being led into a trap. She is but manages to extricate herself from it easily enough and heads back to the States, which is pretty much where she came in. Now on the run from both the cops and her former co-workers, who are under the impression that she has gone rogue, Mallory is hell-bent on discovering who is responsible for betraying her and why--a journey that will entail plenty of chases, fistfights and gun battles, reunions with Aaron and her military man father (Bill Paxton) and the usual number of shocking betrayals and revelations, though nothing that can't be dealt with via a well-placed bullet or well-timed kick to the head.

On the surface, "Haywire" may not sound demonstrably different from most of the other genre product that you can find in the theaters or on cable at any given time. However, what sets this film apart isn't the story so much as the way that the way that Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs have chosen to tell it. As with their earlier collaboration, "The Limey," they have taken a fairly familiar plot and reinvigorated it by choosing a more elliptical approach that adds more of a sense of mystery to the proceedings and forces viewers to sit up and take more notice as to what is going on. At the same time, by stripping away the often-lugubrious details often found in films of this type and reducing the plot to its essentials, it allows Soderbergh, who is also once again acting as his own cinematographer and editor, to take a stab at the kind of purely kinetic action cinema that he has rarely indulged in with his past films.

As it turns out, he has a real knack for it as he offers up any number of stunning set-pieces that deftly blend the balletic and the brutal in often startling and always watchable ways. In fact, these are some of the most impressive fight scenes to be seen in any American film in recent memory. And while Soderbergh and Dobbs treat the potentially ridiculous story in a serious enough manner, they still manage to slip in welcome bits of sly humor throughout. Of these, the funniest occurs with the swift and immediate manner in which a car chase comes to an instant halt--without going into too many details, I will simply state that this is something that I have been waiting to see in a big-screen chase sequence for years and when it comes up, it is both genuinely startling and genuinely hilarious.

"Haywire" contains a better cast than one might normally expect from this kind of film and Soderbergh uses them effectively as guideposts to help drive the story along while preventing it from devolving into complete confusion. That said, the real standout in the cast is Gina Carano, the wild card of the deck, whose performance here is nothing short of a knockout, to use an extremely tired and hackneyed bit of wordplay that even I would be too embarrassed to use if it weren't for the fact that it was so accurate. Having never watched mixed martial arts or "American Gladiators" before, I cannot say for certain what it was about her, beyond her obvious physical charms, that suggested to Soderbergh that she could make it as a movie star but whatever instinct he must have had, it was indeed the correct one. Sure, there are plenty of films these days involving ass-kicking babes but for the most part, very few of them actually make the case that their heroines could plausibly pull off even a fraction of the tricks that they manage to do--of the current crop, perhaps only Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich are even remotely believable and that is as much a byproduct of their considerable on-screen charisma and attitude as it is to their physical skills.

Carano, on the other hand, is completely convincing as someone who possesses the ability to decimate opponents with her bare hands--with the occasional assist of her bare thighs in extreme cases (death, where is thy sting indeed?)--and even though the fight scenes have presumably been extensively choreographed, she launches into them with such ferocious determination that there is an extra edge to the proceedings that simply would not have existed with a more conventional performer. This is all to be expected, I suppose, but what comes as a surprise is the way that she is interesting even in the scenes that don't require her to beat people senseless. She has a compelling and likable personality, a casual ease in front of the camera and more than holds her own in her scenes opposite her more experienced co-stars. I don't know whether she plans to try and make a go of acting or whether this was just a one-time thing but based on what she brings to this film, I for one would love to see her in another one as soon as possible.

Face it, a lot of action films these days, for all the chases, explosions and gunfights they may offer up, tend to be real drags that don't keep their viewers on the edge of their seats as much as leave them slumped back out of sheer boredom. A film like "Haywire," on the other hand, is special because while it contains all of the expected ingredients, it mixes them up into the kind of cinematic stew that is worth savoring. Beautifully conceived and executed and featuring a star whom it is virtually impossible to tear your eyes away from (even as she is tearing away at the eyes of others), this is a fairly amazing piece of filmmaking--the kind of thing that will astound and dazzle art-house audiences and adrenaline junkies in equal measure--and while it is way too early to definitively pronounce this as the best action films of the year, it does set that particular bar fairly high for any potential challengers.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21888&reviewer=389
originally posted: 01/19/12 21:31:17
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User Comments

1/07/13 KingNeutron A bit hard to follow, 4 for the film and 5 for Gina - looking fwd to more from her! 5 stars
6/03/12 mr.mike Not a grand slam but it grows on you. 4 stars
5/05/12 The Taitor A good to decent action movie esp. for Carano 1st movie, prob. won't buy/would watch again 4 stars
4/28/12 action movie fan good cast and fight scenes but needs more 3 stars
1/24/12 Devin Sabas I loved this kick-ass action movie. it had the heart of those spy/action movies of the 60's 5 stars
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  20-Jan-2012 (R)
  DVD: 01-May-2012


  DVD: 01-May-2012

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