Film Review – Haywire
In this latest art house action thriller, Haywire, director Steven Soderbergh returns to some familiar stylistic territory while simultaneously adding to a growing subgenre. The story is rather basic when it comes to the plot; a black-ops special agent for a private security firm is double-crossed after pulling a job and seeks out revenge. Since Soderbergh is such an interesting and dynamic filmmaker, he takes a rather tired plotline and revitalizes it with style and character. Last year director, Nicolas Winding Refn did a similar (and even better) job of stylizing a retro concept with the film Drive, and pumped life into a seldom-sought-after genre of the art house action thriller, especially in a time of mega-budgeted, fantastical epics such as superheroes, transforming robots, and kung-fu-ing sleuths of Scotland Yard—all of which provide many grandiose explosions.
Haywire taps into a similar thematic vein as that which Soderbergh approached in his films Out of Sight and, especially, The Limey. Using non-linear editing, we begin in the classic crime story position of about three-quarters of the way through the story, flashback to how the characters reached this point, and the rest unfolds from there. While the editing sure helps to keep the film feeling fresh, the score by David Holmes works equally alongside it, employing snappy, be-bop hooks. On top of this are Soderbergh’s unusual and engaging cinematography techniques. Taking a credit under the name Peter Andrews, Soderbergh loves getting hands-on with the cameras and has done so on several of his previous films, including Traffic, Contagion, and the Ocean’s films. His framing and camera movements are much more aligned classically than what we typically see in action films these days.
Playing the role of the special agent who gets betrayed—only referred to as Mallory—is professional athlete and MMA champion Gina Carano. Physically, Carano is both beautiful and menacing. Her looks are charming and seductive, but her fighting style is much more matter of fact: quick, brutal, and yet still graceful. While she doesn’t quite move with the fluidity of the likes of Jet Li, her fighting technique is much more working class. The movie is conscious of audience expectations, especially concerning a woman in an action film, and plays to those perceptions. Twice in the film we’re given situations where violence is unexpectedly delivered upon Carano, only to then watch her turn the tables. What’s great here is not the play on expectations, but the way her character has to work for the fight, much in the same way Bond or Indiana Jones always does. We know this person we’re watching is the hero, but the wins don’t come easy. However a fight scene may play out, Carano is always the one on top of her game, presenting an attitude of assurance and suavity.
The rest of the cast is rounded out with otherwise stellar A-list actors, including Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, and Michael Douglas. McGregor plays Kenneth, Mallory’s boss at the private security firm. He’s both charming and slimy, and does both with the panache that has made McGregor the movie star he is. Fassbender, who apparently is in every other film these days, has a relatively small amount of screen time. However, a certain amount of respect is due to Fassbender, who goes toe to toe with Carano’s Mallory and does a fine job of holding his own despite the clear confidence Carano exudes, while we can see Fassbender sweating it out a bit. The scene is especially effective and helps make a case for Fassbender due to Soderbergh’s camerawork and editing, which works to keep true to the classical sense of a fight scene as originally presented in kung fu films from China and Japan: steady and even. The camera does not parry motions, or opt for quick editing in place of jabs; instead, it stays even, out of the way, allowing both players to remain on screen, displaying their physical attributes.
In fact, it’s the action scenes that really make the film interesting and exhilarating—as they should. There are many times when instead of putting the camera and the audience in the forefront of the action—under someone firing a gun, or directly in the middle of two bodies exchanging blows—the camera stays back, framing both sides of a gun battle firing at each other at the same time. In one such shootout, the camera, on a crane, pulls up and away from the exchange of gunfire; as the scene intensifies we are further away and able to take in the full account of the situation. Because of good sound design and high stakes, the scene is every bit as engaging, and even more so, than what we’d see in a Michael Bay film.
What’s slightly disappointing about Haywire is the way it treats these interesting and exciting action scenes as almost incidental between the rest of the story, which takes more of a front-and-center position than the action itself. As I mentioned before, the film works to keep the story engaging and fresh, but it also is predictable. Surprises are not really surprising, and while that in itself is fine, the movie presents these things as moments of revelation to the audience. Instead, they feel a bit lackluster, especially when accented by such great moments of action, and the action is subdued by what’s supposed to be more of a character-driven pulp crime tale.
Overall, though, Haywire is fresh, entertaining, and a bit more meditative than most action thriller these days. With other films like Drive, Attack the Block, and A Lonely Place to Die, hopefully we’re seeing the immersion of the subgenre of art house action thriller making its mark on modern cinema and the public conscious.
Final Grade: B+