*** Haywire (2011)
Steven Soderbergh’s newest film Haywire is a film trapped by the bizarre modern movie rating scale that attaches 5 stars to movies like The Help and The Descendents and 2 and a half stars to nearly everything else. Haywire doesn’t fit into either of these molds. It certainly isn’t Oscar bait, but it’s better than most comparably-rated movies, particularly in the action picture genre. Soderbergh delivers on what is promised – a competent, nicely-handled action thriller that works exactly as well as it needs to. It isn’t going to change your life, but it’s better than you might expect going in.
Soderbergh has been experimenting in recent years (the low budget, hi-definition improv piece Bubble, casting porn star Sasha Grey in last year’s Girlfriend Experience, to name a couple of his more recent cinematic lab tests) and he’s taken another untested lady in ex-Gladiator star Gina Carano and built an entire movie around her physical presence, which is imposing to say the least. The film opens with a terrific fistfight in an upstate New York roadside diner between Carano’s covert operative Mallory Kane and a fellow agent Aaron (Channing Tatum, who seems to be popping up in everything these days). It doesn’t take long to suss out that Kane can take a punch as well as she can deliver one. She dispatches her ex-partner and then escapes in a car owned by one of the diner’s patrons, filling in her frightened passenger with the plot’s back story, a useful but slightly too convenient tool to tell us the same story.
The balance of the supporting cast in Haywire is a Hollywood who’s who of 2nd tier testosterone, the “less-expendables” if you will – actors in place of action stars and it serves to enrich the proceedings. Soderbergh has everyone playing directly on type and it works – Michael Douglas as the shadowy government fixer, Antonio Bandaras as a Latin opportunist, Bill Paxton as Mallory’s ex-marine dad, Michael Fassbender as the suave assassin and a particularly oily Ewan McGregor as the sleazy head of the private military contracting firm that employs Mallory.
Gina Carano is the latest female heroine in a line that can be drawn back to Sigourney Weaver’s take-charge Ripley from the Alien series. There’s been an interesting and welcome uptick in the number of female roles like this one in recent years, a trend I hope will continue. On the heels of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, Winter’s Bone, Colombiana (much better than you’ve been led to believe) and a few others, Soderbergh manages to minimize Carano’s limitations as an actor while at the same time making her the very centre of every scene. Carano has an undeniable screen presence and she mostly holds her own in scenes that shouldn’t work, but do. Soderbergh has made no secret that the film’s main intent was to create amazing fight scenes and Haywire’s modest plot adequately serves this basic purpose. The action sequences are filmed clearly and effectively, without the standard shaky-cam look and endless jump-cuts that mar most cinematic fight scenes these days. Thank you for that Steven.
This is a simple-yet-effective spy thriller that rises above the fray on the strength of its director’s raw talent, a heroine with an oddly-intriguing and intangible screen presence and a better supporting cast than films in this category tend to get. There’s a great line delivered by Mallory’s ethically-challenged boss Kenneth (McGregor) after Fassbender’s assassin character muses aloud that he’d never killed a woman before.
“Oh, you shouldn’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.”