Haywire (United States/Ireland, 2012)

January 18, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Haywire Poster

Steven Soderbergh's Haywire exhibits a remarkable economy of screen time - unusual in an era of bloated action films in which even throw-aways challenge the two hour mark. In fact, one could argue that Haywire is too short. It's enjoyable enough, in a lightweight sort of way, that an extra ten or fifteen minutes would have been welcome. Then again, such an increase might have watered down the relentless pace, which pauses only when necessary to provide a little exposition or to set up the next scene. This is one of the director's mainstream efforts, although his penchant for the offbeat and oddly artistic has not been completely reined in. But there's plenty of unsparing, bone-crunching violence to dismiss the idea that Soderbergh is making an art film in disguise.

Soderbergh is known for being inventive when casting his films. Although he's not averse to using a Big Name Star, like a Julia Roberts or a George Clooney, to add a dose of Hollywood, he has also been known to veer off in unconventional directions. For The Girlfriend Experience, he went to the adult industry and crossed-over Sasha Grey. Now, for Haywire, he has turned to the world of Mixed Martial Arts and recruited Gina Carano. Carano has plenty of experience playing herself but not so much playing a character. In a move that could have been disastrous had Carano proven to be inept at her new craft, Soderbergh surrounds her with Recognizable Names - Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, and Bill Paxton. She's not going to win an Oscar, but she holds her own and, when it comes to physical stunts, there's no need for trickery. Maybe she'll be the Next Action Hero(ine). We could use one. The best we've got right now is Matt Damon, and he's too well-rounded to spend all his time kicking ass and taking numbers.

Haywire is sort of a stripped-down Bourne Identity or License to Kill. The plot is pure Spy Thriller 101 - an elite agent is betrayed by her superiors, targeted for termination, then turns the tables and goes after them to prove her innocence and earn her revenge. In this case, Mallory Kane (Carano) isn't working directly for the CIA or MI6, she's part of a team that is subcontracted for sticky jobs where government agents like Coblenz (Michael Douglas) need to maintain a degree of plausible deniability. After finishing a job in Barcelona in fine fashion, Mallory is sent by her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), to Dublin. There, she is to team up with Paul (Michael Fassbender) and proceed with the mission. The whole thing is a frame-up, and that sets off a chain of events that ends with Mallory in a small diner in upstate New York beating the crap out of her former lover, Aaron (Channing Tatum), which is where we come in during the opening scene.

Soderbergh elects to take about 2/3 of the movie setting things up in flashback with only the final 30 minutes occurring in "real time." The meat of the story takes place in Dublin, and that's all part of the narrative Mallory tells to a good Samaritan (Michael Angarano) who helps her out in her fight with Aaron. There's a legitimate reason to present the tale this way - it allows a focus on the highlights of Barcelona and Dublin without any extraneous "linking" material. With Mallory narrating, the movie can skip ahead at will, using her words to fill in any blanks. This technique is a key reason why Haywire clocks in with such a skinny running time. A more traditional approach would have added at least fifteen minutes to the proceedings.

Haywire's defining characteristic is its look. It hasn't been shot like most action thrillers. The credit (or blame, depending on your point-of-view) is squarely on Soderbergh's shoulders since he acts as cinematographer for his films. The selection of shots is as random and varied as the foods one might find on a hungry man's plate at a buffet: black & white, filtered with desaturated colors, filmed from above, filmed from over-the-shoulder, filmed with a handheld camera (shaky only in early scenes). Although some of the director's choices seem to be without rhyme or reason, others accomplish a specific goal. An example occurs when Mallory walks down a street to escape an attempt on her life. Tension is generated primarily through shot selection: from in front of her, looking over her shoulder. Is the danger the man paralleling her across the street? Is it the car pulling away from the curb? Is it crossing a side street? Or is there no danger, and it's all paranoia?

The fight scenes are long and brutal. As is the case with action thrillers, the characters take the kinds of beatings only superhumans could survive. Mallory repeatedly gets the shit kicked out of her but still looks pretty good (although she does have to employ a little makeup to hide a few bruises after one particularly vicious encounter). There's some inventiveness in a snowy car chase, and more than a little bit of tongue-in-cheek humor laced throughout. In fact, the biggest laugh results from the way that car chase is punctuated.

Like most movies of this sort, Haywire has its share of plot holes, but screenwriter Lem Dobbs (who has written, among other things, Dark City and The Limey - the latter for Soderbergh) is an accomplished enough storyteller to make sure they don't stick out like a sore thumb while the viewer is "in the moment." This is not "great" Soderbergh, regardless of whether one considers him as an auteur or a mass market entertainer. But it is "good" Soderbergh, and that's more than enough. Haywire is fun and I wouldn't mind seeing the next chapter in Mallory's adventures. It's past time we had a female action hero to rival Ellen Ripley.

Haywire (United States/Ireland, 2012)

Run Time: 1:31
U.S. Release Date: 2012-01-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1