Monday, April 23, 2012

Blogorium Review: Haywire

 In the interest of having my review be like the movie, I'll try to keep this short and to the point. Steven Soderbergh's Haywire is a no-frills, bare minimum exposition, ass kicking action film starring Gina Carano. If you don't know who she is (as I did not), I suggest you click on the link embedded in her name. Every review mentions that she was (is?) an MMA fighter with Strikeforce (including this review) and is, accordingly, the "gimmick" employed by Soderbergh in his latest film.

 Very briefly, Soderbergh likes to have one conceit in each of his films that is (presumably) of interest to him and maybe to us, but mostly to film students like me. In The Good German it was using equipment available during the period the film was set. In Traffic it was the color filters. In The Informant it was casting comedians in the boring roles. He is also fond of non-linear storytelling, deliberately misleading edits, and music that is "funky" (Ocean's Eleven, Out of Sight), all of which also play into Haywire. And he's working with Lem Dobbs, who wrote The Limey.

 This time around he's casting an actual cage fighter in a movie about a badass ex-Marine who does contract work for the Government. Admittedly this is not really a new thing, either for action films, or for Soderbergh, who did something similar in The Girlfriend Experience when he cast porn star Sasha Grey as a call girl. It's not really novel or anything to see MMA fighters in movies, what with Randy Couture, "Rampage" Jackson, Oleg Taktarov, Andrei Orlovski, and Keith "The Dean of Mean" Jardine figuring prominently into films in the last few years. Even Zoë Bell, who did stunts for Tarantino, had a prominent role in Death Proof and headlined Angel of Death. So maybe this isn't Soderbergh's most novel "gimmick" to date.

 On the up side, it really doesn't matter because Steven Soderbergh also knows how to frame action and actually does so in Haywire. There's no "shaky-cam" or disorienting fight choreography. He sets up master shots, cuts around the action creatively but always in a way that the hits still feel visceral and the efficiency of the fighting is conveyed. Take the opening scene, where Mallory Kane (Carano) is in a diner and she meets up with Aaron (Channing Tatum), an associate from a job in Barcelona. Aaron doesn't know that Kane's boss / ex Kenneth (Ewan MacGregor) tried to have Mallory killed in Dublin, and when she instead killed Paul (Michael Fassbinder), he set her up. Aaron just knows that Kenneth wants Mallory to "come in" and that Kane doesn't want to. It's an inconvenience to Aaron, so he tries to subdue her. It doesn't work out so well.

 Mallory, after giving a Channing Tatum-sized beatdown in a diner, commandeers the car owned by Scott (Michael Angarano), and provides him with the details of how Kenneth tried to have her killed, what the Barcelona job was, and how she got out of Dublin. In most movies this is just a conceit to catch the audience up, so the other character never asks why they need to know all this and just agrees to help (see: Commando). In Haywire, Dobbs and Soderbergh make sure that all of the story structure serves a purpose, as Mallory knows she's going to need to pass this information to Coblenz (Michael Douglas), the only person she works for that isn't trying to kill or frame her.

 Along the way, we find out how Coblenz and Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) brought Kane in to the Barcelona job against Kenneth's better judgment, how he talked her into going to Dublin to meet MI6 agent Paul, and about the spying on Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz), which is actually just a ruse. None of this, it turns out, is insignificant to when things pick up in real time, nor is the seemingly unimportant plot point about Kane's father John (Bill Paxton), who is alternately concerned for and impressed with his daughter. She really does handle her own throughout the film, even when the hits register (there's a lot of bruises and cuts in Haywire), or when she falls while climbing a building and has a visible limp when she finally escapes Irish special forces.

 I don't really understand why Haywire is so disliked by audiences. Critics seem to really enjoy it, but if you look at the TomatoMeter, 80% of critics like the film only 42% of audiences did. I know that most of my friends don't like Steven Soderbergh (the ones that like some of his movies are often bothered by the detached nature of direction, writing, and editing from the subjects) and I guess Haywire is maybe not as "crowd pleasing" as, say, The Mechanic, but it's far and by a better movie. Like, no question is Haywire a better movie than The Mechanic. Or The Expendables, or most theatrical "action" movies. It's a little bit like a Jason Bourne movie but with competent camerawork and better fights.

 Gina Carano carries the Haywire with ease, and that's saying something with the cast assembled. I was a little nerd-happy to see Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, and Ewan MacGregor in the same scene, and then Michael Fassbinder and Kassovitz show up. Channing Tatum, who I didn't really think about ever before 21 Jump Street, is also good as the guy who isn't that attentive but figures out Kenneth's story doesn't add up. In the hands of literally any other director, Haywire would probably be a "direct to video" joint starring Carano and Billy Zane or something like that. Luckily, Soderbergh was having trouble getting his version of Moneyball off the ground and saw one of her fights on TV. Carano has both the charisma and the badassitude to run the show as Mallory Kane, and if Soderbergh wasn't leaving films to become a painter, I think he'd have a new franchise ready to go. Adventure novelists need to sweep in and start writing "Mallory Kane" paperbacks, pronto. I worked in a used book store. They'd fit right in.

 It all works out, I guess, because it was recently announced that Carano is in talks to join the cast of Fast Six, another action series with recently impressive entries that can showcase what people are missing by hating on Haywire. Seriously, I don't get it. I get why you maybe didn't like Drive, but even if Haywire isn't wall-to-wall ass kicking and maybe it doesn't have a "final boss" fight, I don't buy the same "it's boring" argument. Not that Drive is boring, but Haywire is even less "boring" by the standards of people who I guess would rather be watching Transformers or something. It's more accessible by Soderbergh standards than even the Ocean's films. Oh well. Your loss I guess. After I see Safe with Jason Statham then maybe the Cap'n will come back and figure out what I'm missing. In the meantime, maybe I'll watch Haywire again.

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