I’m hit or miss with Steven Soderbergh, but the man is on a role in the last several years. The Informant! was criminally underrated: hilarious and one of Matt Damon’s best roles. Contagion was in the middle of my Top 10 list for last year (and I stand by my claim that it’s his best film). Now comes Haywire, which, by all accounts including that of the lead being played by an MMA fighter, should be pure cheese-ball action and…well it sort of it is, but it’s technique driven and gleeful action nonetheless.
The plot of Haywire is pretty straightforward. Mallory (Gina Carano) is a block ops solider for hire. When she’s framed for a murder she sets out to find out the “who” and “why” of it all, barreling her way through an impressive male supporting cast including Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum (in a role where he doesn’t suck), Ewan McGregor, and Michael Douglas.
I read an interview recently with Soderbergh where he stated that he knew he wanted to tell a non-linear revenge story. The script by Lem Dobbs is just that. The main problem that I have with it is that its non-linearity seems pointless. It doesn’t add much suspense that a chronological unfolding wouldn’t have done, and the device used to move into flashbacks – Mallory’s conversation with an innocent bystander – is pretty forced and non-narrative (non-narrative meaning that the man whom she “tells” these flashbacks to is ultimately a non-factor in the overarching plot. He’s there for the flashbacks and nothing else).
That’s my major beef with the film. Otherwise, this is some pretty fun stuff with a likable main character who smartly has few lines of dialogue (Carano pulls the part off, but even her few and far between lines relegate her to the role of non-professional, particularly alongside the rest of the cast).
What’s immediately notable about Haywire is the way that Soderbergh chooses to shoot the action scenes. Consider the opener, which begins in a diner where Mallory and Aaron (Tatum) meet for a friendly, if not tense, cup of coffee. He’s the messenger. She was expecting to see Kenneth (McGregor) and not him. He doesn’t take kindly to her refusal to leave with him – so he throws coffee in her face and punches her in the back. A pretty stellar fight ensues. The camera, instead of going into “action mode,” stays static. It observes. There are a few cuts as the fighters move around the diner, but these edits aren’t to inject false life into the scene via a kinetic frame, but instead, to simply get a better view of the action. In this sense, Soderbergh oddly shoots the sequences very similarly to an actual MMA fight where the goal is to see the talent on display.
It’s a refreshing take on the action genre, especially with the overwhelming number of flicks that resort to the handheld camera. There is some handheld in here, but it’s not during the fight sequences. On one hand, the static camera places us as viewer (of which there are several in the diner), but on the other hand – as when there are no bystanders – the camera’s role is to act as antithesis to the current action films of the time. It’s sort of like a statement: ‘I can make something as exciting and realistic as any Bourne film, but with X restraints.’ (X here being the motionless camera). This also falls in line with a) Soderbergh’s consistent themes dating all the way back to Sex, Lies and Videotape (voyeurism), and b) his more recent insistence on a realism that features video, non-professional actors, and a camera that is inflected in its angles, but relatively uninflected otherwise.
Still, at its heart, Haywire is both character sketch – we do get a good feel for who (or maybe ‘what’) Mallory is – and good ol’ action movie. The reliance on sound – breathing, punching; basically, real sound – furthers Soderbergh’s truisms and puts the emphasis back on the stress and strain of hand-to-hand combat.
That’s not to say that the director isn’t interested in movie technique to get the blood running. The score is pulsing and comes up to full volume over many-a-montage (it’s successful in its composition, unsuccessful in that it feels at odds with the rest of the technique). There are a lot of fight scenes, an extended car chase scene, and an awesomely unexpected moment with a deer that is treated so flippantly after the fact as to speak to Mallory’s character and the underlying sense of humor that runs alongside all of the ass-kicking.