Steven Soderbergh has to be considered one of the most versatile filmmakers working today. He can effortlessly switch from slick blockbusters like Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s series to iconoclastic indie projects like Bubble and Full Frontal. Soderbergh’s latest film, Haywire, is a melding of both worlds and his first foray into the action genre.
Haywire was conceived specifically for Gina Carano, who is considered by many to be THE face of female MMA. This is her first movie role and though she’s not exactly an actress with great range, she is a believable badass. Carano is far more suited to the role of action heroine than others like Kate Beckinsale, Angelina Jolie, or Milla Jovovich. She’s not wafer thin, but curvy, tough, and beautiful.
Carano is the awesomely named Mallory Kane, an operative for a private security firm specializing in secretive missions. She is betrayed by her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), following a job in Barcelona to rescue a Chinese journalist held hostage. Mallory is sent to Dublin under the guise of posing as arm candy for Paul (Michael Fassbender), a British freelance agent, who is actually tasked with killing her. When that fails, Mallory sets out on a quest for revenge and leaves a trail of bodies in her wake.
Haywire opens somewhere in the middle of the story with Mallory confronting a fellow agent, Aaron (Channing Tatum), in a diner. After a vicious fight, she grabs a good samaritan (Michael Angarano) and forces him to drive her away as she tells him his story. Not the most original device, but a clever and simple way to unfold the narrative.
Aside from beginning in media res, the plot is fairly straightforward and minimalistic. It’s a close cousin to another Soderbergh revenge picture, The Limey, which was also penned by Haywire screenwriter Lem Dobbs. In fact, it could almost be mistaken for the type of low-budget, direct-to-video actioners that are pumped out by Seagal, Van Damme or Dolph Lundgren. What sets Haywire apart from such detritus is Steven Soderbergh and an A-list cast.
This is Gina Carano’s acting debut and Soderbergh plays to her strengths. He doesn’t give Carano any extended monologues, making sure her lines are short and sweet. He even tweaked her voice in post-production to make it deeper and more authoritative. Carano tends to deliver some of her dialogue in a robotic manner that actually accentuates the cold and ruthless demeanor of Mallory Kane. It’s not unlike what Soderbergh did with ex-porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. There, Grey’s somewhat wooden performance played into her character’s detached personality. Rather than placing the entire burden on Carano’s shoulders, Soderbergh allows his impressive supporting cast to do most of the heavy lifting. In addition to Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender, the ensemble includes Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas as shady government officials and Bill Paxton as Mallory’s ex-military father.
In any event, no one came to see Carano deliver Shakespearean soliloquies. You’re here to see her kick ass.
Soderbergh takes a basic approach to the action sequences and doesn’t drown them with shoddy CGI, heavy metal music or cartoonish foley effects. He doesn’t turn them into an incomprehensible mess by using rapid editing or manic camera movements. He keeps the camera steady and shoots in wide and medium shots. It’s a joy seeing Carano bouncing off a wall and smashing somebody in the face with a hard fist. Two of the best set pieces in the film are the opening diner brawl and a car chase with Carano evading police by driving backwards through a snow covered forest. The centerpiece of Haywire is a brutal fight between Carano and Fassbender inside a hotel room. Soderbergh allows the tension to simmer to a boil as the couple calmly walks to their door and Carano slowly slips out of her heels. You know shit is about to explode, but you just don’t know when.
Forgoing the typical rock soundtrack, Soderbergh opts for a sleek and jazzy score by David Holmes, who was also the composer on the Ocean’s series. The music certainly has that same old school feel and combined with the subdued color palette gives Haywire a 70’s throwback style.
Working with less money and less resources, Steven Soderbergh manages to blow away the big budget schlock by Michael Bay and generic directors like Len Wiseman or Brett Ratner. Haywire is arthouse action comparable to Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, which was my pick for best film of 2011. And Haywire is a unique film that counts as one of the best of 2012.