Haywire (USA) Director Steven Soderbergh Writer Lem Dobbs Starring Gina Carano; Channing Tatum; Ewan McGregor; Michael Fassbender; Michael Douglas; Antonio Banderas; Mattieu Kassovitz; Michael Angarano; Bill Paxton
With The Girlfriend Experience, director/cinematogrpaher/editor Steven Soderbergh took a non-actor (porn star Sacha Grey) and used her as the lead in a story about a high end call-girl - here, he casts real life MMA fighter Gina Carano as Mallory Kane, a fighting/killing machine/action hero. Thankfully, Soderbergh has more success in regards to the performance of the attractive Carano than he did with the barely conscious Grey, though neither will likely be winning any acting awards in the near (or distant) future. Carano, however, displays enough life to plausibly embody the role, using her looks and physicality to play her version of Luc Besson’s/Anne Parillaud’s Nikita.
Soderbergh’s visuals are, as always, top-notch (he uses a 4k red camera), capturing scenes bathed in glowing primary colors; and his prowling shooting style utilizes long lensed shots, black and white photography, and some stylistic flourishes to mirror the surveillance involved in the spy/intelligence/special ops/contractor game. He covers the action with a fluid camera that follows Carano as she battles and flees and chases, probing as if trying to discover what will happen next. The electronic David Holmes (Out of Sight; Ocean Series) score is also recognizably Soderbergh-ian and is notable as much for the times when Soderbergh chooses not to employ it as it is for its pulsating nature.
Soderbergh is enamored with genre experimentation, and here he takes a simple idea - creating an action thriller with a global feel (ala The Bourne series; The International; The American; Munich; Ronin et al) and a woman as its lead, which of course another well-known franchise (The Dragon Tattoo trilogy) is already doing. The director, who a short time back, threatened to retire from film-making, is also riffing on his own oeuvre. Utilizing a basic formula demonstrated in Girlfriend; touching upon world politics or, at least, international intrigue, as in Contagion; Traffic; Michael Clayton; and Syriana (the latter two he produced); using fractured narrative as he has done with The Limey; Out Of Sight; The Ocean Films; and The Informant, he continues delving into new genre vistas while visually and structurally remaining in an identifiable stylistic realm. Ultimately, because Soderbergh doesn’t write his own scripts, his body of work is all over the place in terms of voice - the most consistent aspect of his films past being an evolving, singular visual style and a reliance on the previously referenced editing technique.
The trouble here is not the concept itself, nor the tone - Soderbergh does well using cinematic subtly to hold back information and allow a thinking man’s thriller to unfold. He just doesn’t go far enough. While the script by Lem Dobbs is mostly free of the ghastly expository dialogue too often found in like minded films, the narrative structure (or at the very least one particular device) is purely kids stuff and flies directly in the face of the aforementioned restraint. To whit, the film begins with Kane appearing at a diner where she proceeds to meet Aaron (Channing Taum), a fellow special ops contractor and representative of her boss and former boyfriend Kenny (Ewan McGregor). The two argue about her going with him, they fight, and Kane winds up traveling with an unsuspecting diner patron, Scott (Michael Angarano), who helped her during the altercation.
All of this would be fine if the injured Kane didn’t then proceed to take the wheel and, during the ensuing drive, run down her recent jobs in Barcelona and Dublin (with accompanying flashbacks) with the illogical idea that this stranger/civilian is going to go to the authorities with her story. What makes matters worse than this more than obvious screenwriting device is the fact that Scott will eventually disappear and not be heard from again. Soderbergh is in love with this idea of shaking up the pieces and telling the story in a non-linear way, but here it seems completely unnecessary. If the aim was to subvert the genre and take all (or most) of the air out the tires than mission accomplished. Even for an action thriller though, the facts seem a bit too sketchy, and the story seems a bit too… inconsequential maybe (?) - perhaps in part because we never get to invest in Mallory Kane as a person. In any event, the reliance on the skewed time-line here feels like a cover for a lack of genuine suspense, and that’s a problem.
Make no mistake - Carano as former marine Kane is a female bad-ass, and her past real life fight experience definitely assists in making her hero character close to being believable. The problem is we see her battling a series of grown men, who are mostly also trained Martial artists and professionals like herself, who also deal in violence on a regular basis, and we are somehow to believe that this character, even at a hard-bodied hundred and forty pounds or so, could withstand repeated full contact blows from males outweighing her by 30, 40, 50 pounds or more? There is a reason why women do not fight men professionally, or even compete with them in contact sports, and those reasons apply here.
Still, the fights themselves aren’t bad and Soderbergh uses sound to great effect, though it should be said that several of these confrontations are over-choreographed and, in certain moments, just plain silly. One understands that it’s all a bit of a gag, but Soderbergh does so many things well here, creating a mostly understated action flick that is actually largely watchable that it’s a real shame to see him let go of the realism that dominates many other aspects of the film. It would have been more pleasurable to see Kane demonstrate her fighting abilities, but also a recognition that she couldn’t beat most trained men hand to hand and see her using other skills and methods to escape and/or defeat them. No such luck.
Bill Paxton plays Kane’s oddly passive father, and Michael Fassbender; Michael Douglas; and Antonio Banderas are mostly wasted in underwritten roles that seem to beg for more screen time. Haywire is not an uninteresting foray into a genre dominated by CGI laden, big budget Hollywood entries, and there is certainly no small degree of technical panache on display, but the uber talented Soderbergh perhaps should have taken more chances and diverted even further from convention. The messy time sequencing too is, at this point, tiresome.