This week at the movies is all about action and spectacle. If you’re looking for art, check out one of the recently released awards contenders that you may have missed. But if you want to see a new release, you’d better like guns, fistfights, and explosions because that’s all you're going to get.
First up there’s Steven Soderbergh’s bizarro action flick Haywire that offers a hell of a lot of fun without insulting your intelligence. If you feel like having your intelligence insulted, then there’s always Underworld Awakening. That should be a hell of a lot of fun too, just in a guilty pleasure kind of way. Or if you want to see some impressive CGI WWII-era dogfights and be bored out of your mind every time the characters speak, you can check out George Lucas’s latest blockbuster disappointment, Red Tails.
Yep, it’s not a great weekend for the art of cinema, but it is a good weekend to watch things go boom. If you like that sort of thing, read on for all the praise and scorn that needs to be slathered onto the Hollywood studios this week.
The Good: Haywire
Idiosyncratic Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has made a globetrotting action movie. I can’t imagine anyone saw that coming back in his Sex, Lies, and Videotape days and more importantly, there’s no way anyone would have guessed he’d be good at it. But as it turns out, Soderbergh is a damn talented action director. Haywire has got to be one of the most entertaining and intelligent straight action movies to come out of Hollywood in years. It features the director’s typically detached, golden-hued style while still offering enough fist-pounding action to satisfy the popcorn crowd.
The film began when Soderbergh was mindlessly flipping through late night television and stumbled onto an MMA fight featuring Gina Carano. He became instantly entranced by her unique combination of first class ass-kicking abilities, beauty, and charisma. You will be too after watching Haywire as the film is perfectly catered to the new actress’s skills. She’s a radiant screen presence that Soderbergh wisely doesn’t demand much from as an actress. She just has to be a cold and controlled character who speaks in few words, while the established stars around her like Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas can handle the heavy lifting on the characterization front.
The story is simplicity itself. Carano plays a military trained and independently contracted woman of espionage who is spurned by a former boss on a mission and seeks revenge. That’s it and that’s all you need.
With Carano being a fighter first and actress second, Soderbergh takes as many opportunities as possible to show off her natural talents. The fight scenes are exquisitely choreographed and photographed in wide shots so that you can see Carano and her costars pull off complex fisticuffs clearly and in real time. As a result, the scenes feel so much more real, physical, and exciting than the CGI-assisted spectacle we’re used to in contemporary blockbusters and it’s a pleasantly nostalgic change from the norm.
Soderbergh tells the story as a cool neo-noir with a fractured narrative and a funky score that adds atmosphere without ever manipulating audiences into excitement. Haywire is both off-kilter and easy to absorb, an action movie that will also tickle the art house crowd. It’s not a masterpiece, but a wonderful work of entertainment that will hopefully be a hit. It would be nice if suddenly handing off mid-range action flicks to independently minded directors became a norm. I’m not holding my breath on that happening any time soon, but based on the success of Haywire, it sure would lead to some intriguing B-movies.
The Bad: Red Tails
This week George Lucas announced plans to retire from blockbuster filmmaking following the release of his long-in-development pet project Red Tails. As someone who grew up worshiping the original Star Wars trilogy, I should probably be upset by that news. However, after seeing Red Tails, I completely understand his position (okay, so maybe he’s not officially listed as director, but given his prominent placement in the credits and Anthony Hemingway’s directorial career as a hired gun for television, it’s not difficult to figure out who was really in charge).
In the '70s, Lucas was a talented auteur building up an impressive resume and by the '80s he was a wildly successful visionary. Unfortunately, after taking a decade off from directing, he returned in the '90s as a man who barely even seemed interested in the medium anymore.
Red Tails is very much a film by the guy who made the Star Wars prequels. Though based on the true story of a team of all African American fighter pilots who fought prejudice and Nazis during WWII, this a boring, anemic, and absurdly unbelievable movie. The pilots are all given silly nicknames like Lightning, Joker, or Easy and their characters are about as deep as their handles. The evil white superior officers who keep the pilots down are only one curly mustache away from being silent movie villains. There’s barely even any story, just a series of predictable subplots for each character that never really go anywhere. The movie may be an homage to the wartime thrillers Lucas watched growing up, but there was no need for the script to feel as naïve and unrealistic as that propaganda. The actors all give pretty lackluster performances; however, they can’t really be blamed since they were given nothing to work with in the script.
Admittedly, the movie does feature some pretty exciting dogfight sequences, but even those set pieces were all clearly crafted in a computer and don’t feel real for a second. Plus, when you don’t care about whether or not the boring characters flying the planes die it’s hard to get wrapped up in the drama. It’s a shame that Lucas gave up on creating characters who audiences can empathize with and crafting stories that are easy to get lost in. He used to be quite good at that. These days, he merely seems to be someone who likes playing with fancy new technology.
Red Tails feels like a movie that was storyboarded instead of written or directed. It certainly looks impressive, it’s just devoid of any satisfying emotional or intellectual content. I suppose if you have a deep love for WWII era dogfights the movie will be of some interest, but even then I’d recommend waiting for DVD so that you can fast-forward through every other scene.
I really hope that George Lucas makes some sort of artistic comeback one day. I miss George Lucas the filmmaker and am getting tired of George Lucas the CEO merely cranking out perfunctory entertainment to keep his production company afloat. If his recent claims that he will give up blockbusters to pursue independently financed personal films are true, we should all be grateful. It’s been far too damn long since he actually made a project he cared about and no one who didn’t get a paycheck for Red Tails will be happy it exists.
The Underworld: Underworld Awakening
I can’t in good conscience give Underworld Awakening a good or bad rating given that it wasn’t screened for critics; however, it’s safe to assume that it won’t be great. Generally speaking, movies are only denied press screenings if quality is an issue and the previous Underworld titles have averaged a robust 26% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I hate to jump to premature conclusions about movies, but we’re pretty safe to be making assumptions in this case. The vampire/werewolf war franchise hasn’t exactly been a critical darling so far and I’m sure the producers only wanted to minimize the inevitable thrashing they’ll get again this time.
Truth be told, while the Underworld movies have never really been “good” in a conventional sense, I have to admit to considering them guilty pleasures. Yes, they are big dumb stupid movies that even insult the intelligence of the target teenage boy audience, but they are pretty fun. The plots are usually so convoluted and over-the-top that you have to laugh and the flicks feature enough gun-totting bloodsoaked action that they can’t exactly be described as boring.
Plus Kate Beckinsale is one of the most beautiful women on the planet as well as a talented actress. She’s always enjoyable as the action lead and her fetishistic attire isn’t difficult to look at. It’s safe to assume that Underworld Awakening will be an insultingly dumb 3D blockbuster that will have a big opening weekend and then disappear unceremoniously. But for whatever it’s worth, as far as insultingly dumb 3D blockbusters go, you could do worse. Sadly, I’ll probably be at the theater for it at some this weekend, full of guilt and joy.