The Grey and Haywire: How To Properly and Improperly Use Your Action Star

Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire and Joe Carnahan’s The Grey are typical January studio releases– they are B-grade genre stories, full of low-budget thrills and action. Haywire goes for breezy, old-school, wronged-spy-pursues-revenge fun, yet his script never plays to the strength of his star, Gina Carano. He tosses her into the deep end in her first major role in a feature film, and while her talent is evident, Soderbergh adamantly refuses to exploit it. The Grey is absolutely tailored to Neeson, his old soulful eyes and crow’s feet suggesting worlds of depth, and Carnahan’s desire to break from convention pays off in spades. The Grey is perhaps the best survival film of its kind, while Haywire struggles to gain footing. Both films are quite cold– Haywire’s chilliness comes from being overly methodical, while The Grey’s comes from abandonment in a godless universe.

In Haywire, we follow Mallory Kane (Carano), a black ops agent working for a private firm employed by the government. She’s been tracked down by Aaron (Channing Tatum), a co-worker sent to bring her in. When a young man (Michael Angarano) helps her escape, she tells him her story– when she discovers on a mission posing as the wife of another agent (Michael Fassbender) that the other agent has been employed by her boss (Ewan MacGregor) to kill her, she seeks out her boss, the government agent (Michael Douglas), and his contact (Antonio Banderas) who set her up and betrayed her. Per usual, it’s unclear where the origin of the betrayal lies, but Mallory takes a “scorched earth” policy and has no problem fighting her way to the truth.

The fight scenes– in particular, her big fights with Tatum and Fassbender– are visceral and exciting. There is no question that Carano, a ranked MMA fighter, is incredibly exciting to watch in conflict; she’s a beautiful woman that still remains a believable physical adversary to her male counterparts, a rarity in film. When she kicks, punches, and runs, the audience is captivated. However, there is a *lot* of talking in this film for a movie that should have remained strictly in genre. Soderbergh has proven before that he likes taking non-actresses that fascinates him and throwing them headfirst into the deep end with the godawful The Girlfriend Experience with Sasha Grey, and it seems he’s fallen victim again to his own weakness. The lack of interesting dialogue doesn’t help matters, but the bottom line is Carano is too cold and stiff to believe in acting scenes with the likes of Douglas, Fassbender, MacGregor, etc. Why then insist on forcing your actor to engage in so much dialogue when she’s far more compelling as a silent figure?

Liam Neeson, however, could read the phone book and be interesting. The best moments of his recent action career (Taken, Batman Begins, the Zeus scenes in Clash of the Titans) were during his dialogue– he can pick up a line, chew it up with great Irish gusto, and spit it out full of soul. He’s a strong presence, but his depth is what makes him tough, not his physicality. In The Grey, he plays John Ottway, a man working for an oil company killing the wolves who attempt to attack the workers. He has plans to commit suicide, but he is interrupted by the howl of a wolf. His flight home crashes in the midst of a blizzard, and he and the survivors (among them, Frank Grillo and Dermot Mulroney) find themselves systematically hunted down by aggressive wolves, constantly assaulted by the forces of nature, and face-to-face with their own deaths, testing their will to live.

The trailers depict the film as “Liam Neeson fights wolves,” and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. That may suit a Jason Statham film or a Van Damme film, but Liam Neeson brings depth automatically to every role, and Joe Carnahan exploits that. From the moment they crash, and Neeson talks to a man who is dying in a cold tone with no consolation or hope of afterlife, you can tell the film is different than it was marketed. When Neeson screams at the heavens at one point, demanding that any god who exists earn faith, it’s a ballsy, ferocious moment, haunted by the memories of Neeson’s tragically-lost wife Natasha Richardson, and destined to be one of my favorite moments of 2012. Grillo provides a spark while Mulroney provides some warmth, giving Neeson’s performance perfect compliments. The film blends this masculine philosophizing with horror jump-scares and slow burn tension, adding up to a fantastic start to 2012. Carnahan gives his star the vehicle perfectly suited to his strengths, and Neeson delivers, carrying The Grey and giving one of his best performances in year. Soderbergh only gives us flashes of Carano’s strength, leaving Haywire only fun in small doses; the rest is as cold as Neeson’s wolf-infested tundra.


The Grey:

~ by russellhainline on February 7, 2012.

One Response to “The Grey and Haywire: How To Properly and Improperly Use Your Action Star”

  1. […] ACTOR: 10. Dane DeHaan, Chronicle 9. Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour 8. Liam Neeson, The Grey 7. Aksel Hennie, Headhunters 6. Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi (in 3D) 5. Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis 4. […]

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