Haywire opens with a scene in which Mallory Kane (the retired mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano), an erstwhile member of a private contractor’s elite, government-sponsored fighting force, has a tense meeting with Aaron (Channing Tatum), a beefy colleague who’s come to retrieve her from the field. Before the inevitable beatdown ensues — she’s gone rogue after being double-crossed by her boss, so she’s obviously not going anywhere without a fight — it becomes apparent that this isn’t your typical action programmer. The tip-off isn’t in what you see, but what you hear. Or, rather, what you don’t hear. The two leads converse in near-complete silence, as if they’re floating in space instead of sitting in an upstate diner. The waitress says a few words, meekly, but the expected sound bed of dishes clanking and walla FX is conspicuously absent.
Ostensibly a jazzy, nonlinear short story about the emotional life of a high-end Manhattan hooker, this latest entry in The Steven Soderbergh Eclecticism Project is less a sexy confection than a sly satire on capitalism. Or, more specifically, a satire on capitalists during a recession. The film takes place in the last days of the 2008 Presidential campaign, as the first shockwaves from the current economic downturn are still resonating. Just about everyone on screen is concerned about holding down a job, from the expensive call girl “Chelsea” (contemporary porn star Sasha Grey) who frets about the new batch of hookers who might be that little bit younger, more alluring, and more obliging, to her less affluent boyfriend, a bottom-rung personal trainer who keeps looking for an entr ée to gym management (though he considers himself too special and unique a snowflake to don the company T-shirt). Even the journalist who interviews her is involved, it is clear, in a kind of commerce. And what kind of job is journalist, really, in today’s economy?
The old razzle-dazzle is back with the release of Ocean’s Thirteen, a third outing in the star-anchored caper franchise. It returns to the neon glow and slot-machine jangle of Las Vegas, where aptly named entrepreneur Willy Bank (Al Pacino) is bilking his erstwhile partners out of their fair share in his new hotel/casino venture, and Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and crew are scheming to take Bank down. To call the ensuing plotline “highly improbable” would be paying it an enormous compliment. It’s ludicrous, contrived, and borderline crazy. Of course, that’s almost completely irrelevant with this cast. Clooney’s great talent is putting on an air of seriousness that suggests he doesn’t know how good he looks doing it. Matt Damon selflessly casts aside movie-star ego and spends most of his screen time wearing a gigantic fake schnozz to gentle comic effect. Brad Pitt remains completely and spectacularly chilled out for the duration. Best of all, director Steven Soderbergh’s camera takes it all in with jazzy, unburdened élan, zipping easily from character to character. Don’t expect an engaging or absorbing heist yarn. But of the summer sequels released so far, it’s easily the least complicated and most entertaining—and probably the smartest.
Coming on like he had something to prove, Steven Soderbergh managed to release not one but two world-beating films this year. Erin Brockovich was pretty good, an extremely well-directed movie of the week with a delightful-for-a-change Julia Roberts in the title role. But Traffic is a relatively deep and highly entertaining epic about the hypocrisies and futilities inherent in the American war on drugs. Transplanted to the U.S. and Mexico from a British TV miniseries set in the U.K. and Pakistan, Traffic dismantles U.S. drug policy with an acumen rarely seen in recent mainstream film. Distinguished by outstanding performances (particularly from Benicio del Toro and the great Don Cheadle) and superior storytelling strategy, the whole project is dragged down somewhat by contriving to make Drug Czar Michael Douglas’s daughter a goggle-eyed dope fiend and by Soderbergh’s overly stylized cinematographic strategy. Quibbles aside, the rest of the picture is an exciting message movie that proves Hollywood can still make exciting message movies. So bring ’em on, folks.