- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Relativity Media
Reviewed by Bob Westal
ewbie action director and all-around busy guy Steven Soderbergh argues that this hard-edged spy thriller is "more of a drama with action than it is a wall-to-wall action movie." True enough, but isn't every decent action film primarily a drama with action? Hollywood seems to think it can make films where stories and characters are an afterthought, but that's like trying to make cupcakes that are 99% sugar; and Hollywood usually screws up the sugar.
"Haywire" most definitely does not screw up the violent sugar, however, and is an entirely honorable throwback. Re-teaming Soderbergh with writer Lem Dobbs of the not entirely dissimilar "The Limey," it's a story-driven action-spy flick that blends a Jason Bourne-like protagonist with callbacks to early James Bond and a blue-eyed blaxspoitation aesthetic. Soderbergh describes it as "a Pam Grier movie made by Alfred Hitchcock." I'd say it's more like an espionage-driven "Coffy" as directed by Steven Soderbergh.
"Haywire" stars Gina Carano, a newcomer to acting but a big name in the world of mixed martial arts, as Mallory Kane. Kane is a seriously skilled security contractor who is not to be messed with; yet messed with she is. As Mallory seeks to extricate herself from a complex international double cross, she must deal with a number of men, and no women. There's her boss/ex-boyfriend (Ewan McGregor); a dashing fellow operative (Michael Fassbender); a less dashing colleague and occasional boy-toy (Channing Tatum); her military historian dad (Bill Paxton); a CIA bigwig (Michael Douglas); a shadowy Spanish fellow with an annoying beard (Antonio Banderas); and a flabbergasted youth with a soon to be cleverly sacrificed economy car (Michael Angarano). In typical Soderberghian fashion, the film begins well into the story and backtracks and flash-forwards between a number of locations with fluid ease. If you can't follow all of it, that's your problem...and mine.
Shot on the low-budget friendly 4K Red digital camera by Soderbergh, "Haywire" digitizes the muted colors and diffused light of 1970s thrillers. It sports a similarly off-kilter morality with occasionally likable baddies and a somewhat morally ambiguous lead. In one scene in particular, Mallory acts out Soderbergh's admitted fascination with the early James Bond films as she one-ups 007's final cold-blooded meeting with Dr. No's chief flunky, Professor Dent. (He had his six.) I find the ruthlessness disturbing, but you might think it's all in a day's work.
The film’s R-rating is right on the money, but "Haywire" is otherwise more morally responsible than most action flicks. Its mayhem looks every bit as painful and scary as it is fun to watch, and the audience I saw it with was audibly gasping at its ferocity. Even after years of action heroines taking on male foes, there is an element of shock at seeing the brute force with which Mallory Kane's attackers fight her. However, as one heavy tells another, thinking of her as a woman "would be a mistake."
That shock is reinforced by the reality that Soderbergh actually knows how to stage an action sequence an audience can follow and he's clearly been taking notes from all the world cinema action masters that matter. These are fights that are hypnotic to look upon but also painful to contemplate. The overall effect is slightly creepy. Another mid-century action film I keep thinking about in regards to "Haywire" is 1972's "The Mechanic," in which both Charles Bronson and Jan Michael Vincent's characters easily match the old textbook definition of the word "psychopath."
"Haywire" suffers from two problems which keep it from achieving action movie nirvana. Acting-wise, Gina Carano is about at the level of a young Chuck Norris. She's all authority and not much feeling, though many will be distracted by her beauty and sex appeal. (She could easily play the bigger, badder sister to fellow Soderbergh low-fi star Sasha Grey – and wouldn't that be an interesting movie?) Fortunately, the director cannily works around his star's limited thespian abilities and makes full use of her powers as a stunt woman, surrounding her with an extremely strong cast, many of whom get to exchange blows with her and look surprisingly credible in the process.
Let's talk about those somewhat disposable men of "Haywire." He may be a weak link of sorts, but Channing Tatum does solid enough acting work and is a more than able partner in a couple of fight scenes. Possible Oscar-nominee Michael Fassbender of "Shame" is back as something of an evil twin of his "Inglourious Basterds" character and/or his version of James Bond, downing whiskey and smoking cigarettes with ruthless suavity. Less spectacular, but reasonably magnetic in a larger role, is Ewan McGregor. Bill Paxton as Kane's very supportive and nonjudgmental dad almost finds his inner Gary Cooper. Finally, young Michael Angarano ("Red State," "The Forbidden Kingdom") provides some too brief comic relief as a resident of the normal world who dares to react appropriately to all the insanity. A kind word should also be reserved for a number of male stunt doubles.
"Haywire" has many strengths and some niggling weaknesses, but forget the weaknesses. Soderbergh has, at least for the space of this lean 87 minute potboiler, brought storytelling and visual coherence back to the American actioner. Like "Dr. No" and those Pam Grier movies, he has also restored the power to disturb to a simple action film, without going art house, a la "Drive." I can't quite rave about "Haywire," but I can be excited about how it's figured out a way to make slick action movie violence feel violent again.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Lionsgate’s Blu-ray release of “Haywire” is pretty disappointing, with only a pair of featurettes to choose from, including one on Gina Carano’s training and the various fight sequences, and a brief collection of interviews with some of the film’s male cast.