Fridays in January are for action films. That is just a personal preference and it seems that Hollywood tends to agree. We get a lot of releases at this time of year that are geared to simple, mindless butt-kicking action. I am anticipating my annual Liam Neeson fix next week, and I am not a fan of the Underworld movies, so this was on the table. The director Steven Soderbergh, has made a lot of films that I have enjoyed. Most of them are character and dialogue driven. They have clever plots and lines to make the movie flow. This film is neither dialogue heavy or full of characterization. I think you can see some of the limitations of his work in this movie. It is a good film, and the story is intricate but as an action film it lacks the drive and rhythms that most of us crave.
Ever since Pulp Fiction, I have noticed that movies and TV shows have employed time shifting story development on a frequent basis. Sometimes it adds to the drama as we anticipate the situation we started in, sometimes it is a humorous device to reveal how foolish the characters have been and sometimes it is simply not necessary. This is one of those movies which employs this device but has no real reason to do so except that it seems a stylish choice. Nothing was added by the back and forth jumps in the story and it made a somewhat confusing spy betrayal story even more confusing. Dramas and comedies can probably make this technique work, but action films need a rhythm to them and this movie never seems to develop any rhythm.
The main feature of the film is the star, a woman who is apparently a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. She has a striking look but is definitely not the typical Hollywood beauty. It appears that instead of casting for a actress who can fight they cast a fighter who can act a little. Gina Carano is clearly a badass, She handles the stunts and fight sequences really well. There are several really well staged fights in the film, including one that opens the film in a dinner and another one that takes place in a hotel room. The hand to hand combat is brutal and realistic with the exception that most action films have, the participants all stand up to a lot more physical abuse than is ever apparent five minutes after the scene is supposed to be finished. The main problem with the story is that it really just consists of one chase after another and then a fight scene. Because it is hard to tell where the plot is headed and why, the sequences feel like time killers until the next point of exposition. There is a lot of exposition. People talk on in long sequences without always revealing what the audience needs to anticipate the next action scene.
It was an interesting choice to have all of the fight sequences and most of the chase sequences occur without a music score to increase the mood. There is a nice low key jazz type score in the sections where characters are setting up the next sequence, and there is a little bit of emotional weirdness in the dissonant score. In the context of a film that is supposed to be all propulsive action, it feels like a failed experiment. The movie never takes off the way the fight scenes and at least two chase scenes do. Also, the betrayal requires a much stronger payoff than we get, at least with the main betrayer. I did think that the final shot worked effectively and does leave something to our imaginations that should be pretty hard. There are several good actors in the film, some of them are under used like Bill Paxton and Antonio Banderas. Michael Fassbender who is on the brink of becoming a major star, has a long sequence in the middle of the film but only take flight in his big fight scene and then a later flashback.
Nothing about the movie should discourage anyone from seeing it if you are interested. I enjoyed it quite well. I just wanted to love it much more than I did. Last year, “Hanna” covered some similar themes and action but with a much more focused story. The style of that movie was much more interesting than this one which feels like a film maker, trying out for the part of an action director. With the Bond films, action helmers like Martin Cambell and John Glen, while not artists by most standards, managed to make movies that feel like they are constantly headed somewhere. Marc Foster, the director of “Quantum of Solace” was not an action director and it showed. We have the same problem here. There is a serviceable plot, a strong central character but a weak execution of the pace and rhythm that most fans of these kinds of film want.