by Matt Smith
Had I known going into Haywire that not only was I getting a Steven Soderbergh action movie, but it was also going to be a 70s “B” action movie, I’d have been even more psyched up than I was already. Starring Gina Carano, whose real-world mixed martial arts credentials have been much written about, the film is a thriller which, despite being detached, cold, and ultimately difficult to worm your way into, turns out to be, especially as far as recent Soderbergh films are concerned, extremely accessible.
I’ll discuss the action set pieces later, but of primary importance is the aesthetic design that permeates the film and creates an odd hybrid of Ocean’s-style visuals and Traffic-like color coding of time with the low-key color palettes and audio design of Che and The Girlfriend Experience. If this is the year that Soderbergh calls it quits, it appears he’s going all-in, utilizing as many tricks and tropes he’s developed over the past two decades and nudging them ever so slightly into new directions.
Visually, Haywire is unassuming and straightforward, with all eyes focused on Carano’s Mallory Kane, who is quite impressive as a physical form, and really looks like a traditional action star, unlike some of the more recent women who have dabbled in the genre. Standing at 5’8” and with a muscular build, it’s nice to see Carano rollicking around in cafés and hotel rooms with the big names filling out the rest of the cast.
Soderbergh reportedly wanted to make this film so he could work with Carano, which is not entirely unheard of for the director, who has plenty of experience in picking non-actors depending on what project he is currently working on, from extras to stars. Much like his previous work with Sasha Grey, Soderbergh here employs someone with a tenuous real-life relationship to the subject matter and pulls a performance out of them that is satisfying not so much because of their acting chops, but for the way in which it constantly forces the audience to re-establish an understanding of the character. Whether it is Carano’s MMA experience that constantly brings attention to the film’s action or Grey’s status as a performer in adult films that lends some authenticity to her character’s sense of overwhelming loneliness, the result is the same: it’s an interesting performance because of who they are and what the film is trying to make us see.
The film’s plot is a bit convoluted, and takes some sussing out, but the gist is that Mallory Kane works for a private contracting company that takes jobs from the government. Her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), attempts to frame her for the murder of a hostage she was initially sent to rescue in Barcelona, but she escapes and tracks down the men involved in the conspiracy so she can be cleared of fugitive status. That’s pretty much it, though there are some twists and turns, and some shady figures who we never really figure out exactly where they stand, though they seem to be on Mallory’s side for the time being.
The script, by Lem Dobbs, who also collaborated with Soderbergh on Kafka and The Limey is pretty strong, though it suffers from what can sometimes be his penchant for trying to be too minimalist. There are long stretches of the film in which nothing much seems to be happening, and a lot of exposition, and while Soderbergh handles these scenes nicely, it does get to be a bit much, and the film can seem like its pace is dragging a bit, especially compared to other recent action films. This isn’t entirely to the film’s detriment, however, as it lends an urgency to the action when it does ramp up, allowing us to bask in the one-on-one fistfights that occur and the striking audio design in those scenes.
The pacing, even the convoluted storytelling, is certainly reminiscent of 70s “B” movies, calling to mind some of the terrific work achieved by Jack Hill and the Republic Pictures cohorts that oversaw the careers of great “B” talent like Pam Grier and Sid Haig. It is also vaguely reminiscent, in the pared-down and thoroughly no-frills aspect of its filmmaking, of Soderbergh’s own Out Of Sight, which was itself a riff on the exploitation genre and probably the best adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s descriptive pulp aesthetics, which are employed differently, though no less effectively, than in Jackie Brown or Justified.
Soderbergh employs a realistic aesthetic for sounds in Haywire, and I got the sense that attempting to utilize location-based sound in the film’s fight sequences may have been his main interest in tackling the project. At first it’s disorienting, muffled, and, well, odd. The music drops out entirely (even picking up sometimes during lulls in the fights before dropping back out again) and all we are left with are the sounds of bodies on bodies, huffing and puffing, and smashing into and breaking things. A punch sounds like a punch and not like a Mac truck slamming into a wall, and footsteps sound like footsteps. That this general aesthetic is employed throughout the film, privileging music and dialogue, is interesting, but to not even have music during the fights is even more revealing and amazing.
I personally appreciated the minimalist yet still engaging set pieces, which saw Mallory getting into pretty strict kickboxing territory with her opponents, only occasionally using a gun as a method of taking them down. Carano’s natural athleticism also reminded me of another “B” movie that I saw last year: Bail Enforcers. While that movie was lacking on some levels, what it did have as its greatest assets were several fight scenes which relied on the film’s star, Trish Stratus, to do the heavy lifting. It was refreshing to see real people working in a way that pointed out their natural strengths, especially compared with the Hollywood acrobatics of a Cruise or a Jolie. In Haywire, the focus is almost entirely on Carano, whether it’s in the film’s knockdown dragout centerpiece with Michael Fassbender, or the extensive chase scene that sees Mallory Kane traversing the skyline to escape the police. The film is, at its core, its essence, about Carano’s body physically interacting with other bodies and her environment.
Take, as my last example, the final such sequence, in which Mallory takes out Kenneth once and for all. Kenneth, now in hiding, is taking a walk along the beach and admiring the sun over the water when suddenly we see her appear in the frame over his shoulder. She is sprinting toward him and jumps him from behind, both of them crashing into the waves. Crawling out of the surf, she again runs at him and delivers a blow to the face. After many punches and slams against the jutting rocks, Kenneth becomes trapped (how, I’ll leave for you to see), and after giving Mallory some information about the rest of the scheme, is left to his fate. Here we have a scene which revolves entirely around bodies and environment: Carano, McGregor, the beach. Each one is a different dynamic, and Soderbergh pulls them each into a specific relationship with the others. It’s aesthetically amazing.
The result of all this is that Soderbergh has crafted an unconventional action thriller that surprised and delighted me, even as several people walked out of the theater–perhaps because things were moving slower than they could take, or because it didn’t have the audible “oomph” so many action movies artificially inundate us with. But the film’s ability to breathe and take in the artistry of fight sequences, of two bodies interacting with one another in violent ballet, was much to its advantage as far as I’m concerned.
4 out of 5 stars