Film review by: Witney Seibold
Steven Soderbergh’s films are, when you look over his career, all over the map. He is a director who does not seem happy unless he’s breaking some sort of ground. He can be an efficient director-for-hire (as in his “Ocean’s” movies), he has experimented with mumblecore (“Bubble”), he has tried his hand at different kinds of ensemble dramas (“Full Frontal,” “Traffic”), and he’s even made biopics (“Kafka,” the upcoming “Magic Mike” and “Behind the Candelabra.”) and remakes (“Solaris”). I admire this tendency greatly. While his films may not always work, he’s willing to try new material, and adapt them to his idiom. It’s his habit of gleefully dipping his toes into new material that, no doubt, led to his conception of “Haywire,” a legitimate spy thriller with brutal fights, dumb dialogue, a typically oblique story, and a hot chick, all filtered through Soderbergh’s recognizable aesthetic. “Haywire” plays like an arty version of a long-forgotten ninja film from 1989.
The hot chick in question is Gina “Crush” Carano, a former American Gladiator and MMA champion. The story goes that Soderbergh, trapped in a hotel room for the night, caught one of her fights on cable TV, and decided that she was talented and sexy enough to put in a movie. Since this “I’ll put you in pictures, kid” approach is a classic exploitation moviemaking formula, Soderbergh and his screenwriter Lem Dobbs (“Kafka,” “Dark City,” “The Limey”) seem to have intentionally constructed a kind of cheesy screenplay full of spy twists and turns that are orchestrated to be unrealistic and kind of oblique. The plot turns clearly exist as an excuse to feature Carano in some really amazing fight sequences.
The fights are – to use an overused word – awesome. They play like impressive dance numbers, but actually pack punch. People look like they’re getting hurt, and they employ the space around them. The edits are mercifully spare. Eye gouges, high kicks and bodily smashing all have real weight and power behind them. When someone goes flying into a glass bar in a ritzy hotel room, it looks like, well, they’re being smashed through glass. These are not the fights of untiring superbeings with steel fists who never get injured. Nor are these light-footed kung-fu dance sequences where people move at a sped-up pace. These are the fights of someone who actually, well, fights. I think I can safely say that “Haywire” features some of the best cinematic fighting I’ve seen in many years.
What’s more, Carano is gorgeous. She has a pretty face, a nice athletic body, and looks dynamite in a dress. It’s no wonder Soderbergh wanted to cast her. Carano is, however, clearly an athlete before she’s an actress, so her line readings are clunky, and her tougher-than-leather attitude is clearly an affect. But I’ve said this before: sometimes bad acting can be more charming than good acting. When athletes act, through their bad line readings, you at least get the sense of the real person underneath. Carano may not be much of an actress, but she doesn’t need to be. She’s a badass, and often that’s all you need.
The story is a lump of spy hokum that I could barely keep straight. Carano plays an elite-ops spy-type named Mallory who is called by her various shadowy bosses to various exotic locales in order to assassinate various shadowy politicians. Intelligence is miscommunicated, alliances are tested, and eventually it’s revealed that it was all part of an elaborate betrayal, for which Mallory must get an extended badass revenge for. Peppered throughout are about a dozen recognizable actors, all taking part in this backstabbing scheme at various levels. There’s Ewan McGregor (doing his adorable American accent), there’s Michael Douglas, there’s Antonio Banderas, there’s Michael Fassbender somewhere in there, and there’s the lunkhead stud du jour (and natal Soderbergh muse) Channing Tatum, complete with his big biceps and cylindrical head. Even Bill Paxton shows up.
I think that this was Soderbergh’s attempt to make a 1989 straight-to-video spy movie (with, say, Cynthia Rothrock or someone comparable). But it’s not an attempt to recapture the old style of such a movie (i.e. the “Grindhouse” approach), but more a way to update the material into a new aesthetic idiom. I’d say he was successful.