The heroine of Haywire, a new spy movie from director Steven Soderbergh, is a role that could have been written for Angelina Jolie. She’s distaff 007, a femme fatale with a cold gaze and a dominatrix flair for putting men in their place when not beating them to a pulp. It would be a typical assignment for Jolie, a warrior queen who has played secret agents in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Wanted, Salt and The Tourist. But Soderbergh was aiming for a realistic upgrade of the spy genre. And as he says in Haywire’s press notes, “I knew there had to be a woman other than Angelina Jolie who could run around with a gun.”
So just as he recruited a real-life porn star to play a prostitute in The Girlfriend Experience, the director cast a real-life warrior in Haywire—but with more spectacular results. Gina Carano, a top-ranked fighter in the brutal sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), makes an explosive screen debut as hard-boiled heroine Mallory Kane, a ruthless black-ops agent working for a private security firm. She not only performs her own fights and stunts, but carries the movie in what feels like a landmark role. Outside the Asian martial arts genre, she must be Hollywood’s first female action star drawn from the ranks of real-life gladiators.
Just as Carano has left the MMA cage to step in front of the camera, Jolie has broken out of her gilded cage to step behind it. She has written and directed an ambitious drama that frames atrocities in Bosnia with a star-crossed romance between a prisoner and his captive. In the Land of Blood and Honey is a foreign-language film with an all-Bosnian cast that tackles a still-controversial subject. Although reviews so far have been mixed, Jolie’s directorial debut (it opens this week, along with Haywire) is surprisingly strong.
It’s easy to mock Jolie—for her collection of children, her Louis Vuitton humanitarianism, or her freakish glamour. But considering that just a decade ago she was still playing with knives and married to Hollywood’s Krusty the Clown, Billy Bob Thornton, Jolie has come a long way, from filling Audrey Hepburn’s UN shoes to reigning over Hollywood’s unofficial royal family. And now for the second time in her career she has fused her art and her political conscience—the first was in 2007, when she played the widow of slain journalist Daniel Pearl in Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart.
In the Land of Blood and Honey presents harrowing scenarios of rape and genocide in the ethnic cleansing campaign conducted by Serbs during the war that ravaged Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995. The story begins with a bomb blast in a nightclub that shatters a promising date between Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serb policeman, and Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), a Muslim artist. They meet again as Ajla is being herded into a prison. Danijel, the commanding officer, saves her from being raped, and makes her his portrait artist, imprisoning her in a spacious studio.
This is a film on a mission to expose the atrocities of Europe’s deadliest conflict since the Second World War, yet it’s paced by erotic, almost painterly interludes of sex, as prisoner and captor test each other’s conflicted loyalties. Jolie’s combustible mix of love and genocide is not subtle, but there’s no questioning the craft of her filmmaking, the honesty of her intentions, or the power of the performances she draws from the cast. Unlike Madonna’s W.E. it’s no vanity project.
Carano’s spy thriller, however, will far outstrip Jolie’s subtitled tragedy at the box office. Haywire is hot-wired with action untainted by special effects, as Soderbergh lends a stripped-down style to the spy genre. And Carano more than holds her own with the likes of Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender. “I don’t do the dress,” she snaps when asked to escort a male agent as arm candy in an evening gown. Yet she does the dress beautifully—before taking on Fassbender in a hotel-room fight that may be the most vicious scene of hand-to-hand combat ever waged by a woman in a Hollywood movie.
Carano, who damages people for a living, had to learn how to fake her punches; Jolie tried to connect with the grim reality of a war. Two warrior queens on opposite tracks—both looking for a little respect.