It’s been almost a year since Zack Snyder woefully misunderstood the idea of female empowerment and set feminism back by about a century with Sucker Punch, but redemption finally arrives in the form of Haywire, Steven Soderbergh’s latest foray into another new genre for his career: the action flick. While the film has mostly generated hype for the casting of MMA fighter and former American Gladiators star Gina Carano – a stark contrast to the waifish actress usually occupying these roles – Haywire also deserves credit for being the rare post-feminist action film. Rather than sexualize the female character, treat her like the weak underdog, or hold the threat of rape over her head, Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs simply acknowledge her gender a couple of times and move past it without any kind of fanfare.
Playing the exact sort of character type that gets Michelle Rodriguez killed in every movie, Carano is Mallory Kane, a tough-as-nails and highly esteemed covert ops specialist on the verge of retirement. Of course, talk of retirement is the most reliable incantation for summoning wave after wave of life-threatening shit-storms, thus Mallory is predictably betrayed and framed on her last mission. Left with multiple murders pinned on her and no one to trust, she sets out to find the people who double-crossed her in an effort to take brutal, efficient revenge.
Despite the simplicity of that premise, none of it is quite as compelling or dramatic as it may sound, because Dobbs’s script is clumsily plotted, with one dimensional characters and artificial dialogue, the latter of which is especially strange to see in a Soderbergh film. The style of dialogue is perhaps consistent with the film’s attempt to channel sixties-era spy thrillers and martial arts B-movies through paranoid camera angles and a moody jazz score, but it occupies this strange void where it’s not quite cheesy enough to be considered an intentional joke, yet too awkward to be taken seriously. Carano’s acting is rough and her delivery often flat, but she isn’t entirely to blame when she has to voice such clever taunts as “You better run.” Even most of the experienced male supporting cast members (Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas) are unable to escape their dialogue unscathed. Only Michael Angarano, doing his best Shia LaBeouf impersonation, is ever worth listening to.
Writing isn’t ever expected to be the top priority in these sorts of films, but the unnecessary flashback structure coupled with the lazy execution of crucial twists actively work together to undermine the stakes and any investment there is in the story. Upon learning how Mallory has been framed, why she’s been framed, why she’s decided to call person A or go to place B, we have to just take the film at its word; the moment we start prodding for silly things like greater meaning or logic, the entire story comes crashing down.
What’s strangely fascinating, though, is how these major problems are entirely circumvented whenever an action scene takes over. For any other film, a lack of logical stakes is a death sentence for the action – there’s simply nothing to care about amidst all the fists and gunfire and explosions. And though Haywire’s story is no better than that of, say, Sucker Punch, Clash of the Titans or any other forgettable CGI-heavy action films out there, Soderbergh’s clear vision for realistic fight sequences showcasing Carano’s actual martial arts expertise is what temporarily gives stakes to certain scenes and elevates the film. By cutting out the music, capturing wide, static shots and reducing the edits, Soderbergh makes us forget how fake the story has been by showing us how real the fighting can be with this clean, striking minimalism. Carano effectively employs jiu-jitsu chokeholds, muay thai’s eight points and assorted objects in the environment to fight, and it’s an absolute joy to watch – a welcome change from the classic dance-like standards of Hong Kong’s female action icons like Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock. The brutal hits are truly felt here; you can see instinctive flinches rippling through the audience with certain blows. The film’s chase sequences are also shot with sophisticated long takes and wide frames that constrain our perspective, while making use of foreground and background space to tease at danger and keep us constantly checking over Mallory’s shoulder.
Just as Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive stripped down the highway B-movie and refashioned it to find unexpected moments of cinematic exuberance, Haywire tries something similar by refashioning the action-thriller with a restrained, no frills approach and finds unexpected ways of creating tension and immersing the audience. Still, for every ambitious or inspired action scene, there’s at least one plot filler scene treated with an equal amount of negligence and indifference. The film is nowhere near perfect. In fact, it doesn’t so much as feel like a film as it does an exercise or a training session, but between Soderbergh’s genre jumping and looming hiatus, it’s hard to imagine what the practice was for– or if there’ll ever even be a main event.
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Written by Tarun Shanker (@tuna365)
After tragically losing his childhood innocence by watching Steven Seagal kick a man under a train in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Tarun emerged from the shadows to graduate from NYU with a degree in Film & English and become a mild-mannered New York City assistant by day and a… More »
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