Haywire review

Director Steven Soderbergh turns his hand to the action genre with Haywire. How do he and MMA star turned actress Gina Carano fare? Here’s Duncan’s review…

January seems to be an increasingly reliable time of year to find a great, if perhaps trashy, genre movie, so it was with great enthusiasm that I snatched up the chance to go to a screening of Haywire.

After all, despite the unknown quality of its former MMA fighter turned actress, Gina Carano, Haywire looked like a straight to video action gem, only with an elite cast and the artistic eye of director Steven Soderbergh. All of which I assumed would make for a near perfect action flick. This, however, is not the case.

I can’t stress enough that Haywire isn’t an action movie. Sure, the lead actress, the trailers and even some early reviews would have you believe that fact, but it’s simply not true. There are about four key fight scenes, mostly short, but that’s about it. No car chases (I’m not counting a short drive across some snow), no explosions, no grand set pieces and only a couple of chases on foot, which seem to border on parody.

The film left me utterly confused with its apparent lack of any structure; it seems as if Soderbergh doesn’t really understand the genre at all, and if he does, then it feels as if he’s looking down on it, which is even worse. Despite being an action movie junkie, I appreciate any attempts to move the genre beyond its usual confines, with Drive being a recent example of a film that successfully played with its conventions.

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In Haywire, there’s nothing to really cling on to from the outset. We gather that ‘something’s gone bad’ on a mission and that Carano’s character, Mallory Kane, is on the run, but we’re never really given any reason to care about her, have no idea what her thoughts or feelings are towards anyone, or anything, beyond ambivalence and a dislike of wearing dresses.

It’s a hackneyed cliché in most action movies to evoke sympathy in the lead protagonist fairly quickly, normally by some form of dirty deed to said heroes’ family/beloved/pet, just as it’s important to establish who the bad guy is. But Soderbergh’s meddling goes one step too far and forgets the one key rule – to give it some heart.

After a (literally) cracking opening, Mallory kidnaps a young guy, along with his car and promptly explains her predicament, in what appears to be a role reversal of the Bourne/Marie relationship. That particular narrative thread is then ditched for no real reason, making any exchange between them entirely redundant, thus removing the only real human element.

Mallory does at least appear to have a close relationship with her father, so that adds a slight risk element to her plight, only her father happens to be embodied by the rather awesome and moustachioed form of Bill Paxton. For some strange reason I’d forgotten how much I love that man. Maybe because it had been a while since I’d seen him on the big screen, but either way the Paxton appearance nearly lead to an unprofessional moment in the screening room, where I felt compelled to stand up and shout his name at full volume.

And speaking of things I did love in the film, there is Gina Carano.

Now, it would appear that several other people at the screening weren’t as impressed, but as someone who loves action movie stars above all others, I thought Carano was fantastic. Yes, I might have suffered the kind of instant crush that’s normally only applicable to the likes of Statham, but that just made me realise that since James Cameron took his foot off the gas, no one has really stepped up to replace the cinematic presence of Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton.

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Sure, the likes of Angelina Jolie, Milla Jovovich and Amber Heard are all doing their part and I utterly respect that, but there comes a time when all a man wants is to believe that a female action heroine could really kick a bloke’s head off, and Gina Carano is just such a woman.

Action stars are often, fairly or otherwise, criticised for their ability to act, but what does count in their favour is physical presence and charisma, which has certainly helped out many a wrestler turned actor. Still, I was incredibly curious as to how Carano would hold up coming from an MMA background.

I thought she did so incredibly well, especially in such esteemed company. Her performance seemed to intentionally channel the steely coldness of both Linda Hamilton and Lena Headey’s Sarah Connors, while at times Carano did seem uncannily like Jolie, but I think that might be more to do with Salt than anything else.

Regardless, Carano is now on my action movie radar, the poor woman.

Also, at one point in the film, there’s a throw-away line in which she’s called Wonder Woman, which I’m sure will lead to mass speculation, but it does seem like she’s an uncanny fit.

As you might have also gathered from a quick glance on IMDb, or at Haywire’s poster, there is rather a large amount of high profile and immensely talented actors in the cast, which is now the norm for a Soderbergh film, and they’re all are used to varying degrees. The likes of Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas are always a delight to watch when given the chance to do as they wish with an easy role. Neither seemingly care what’s going on around them, but at least have fun in the process. Ewan McGregor is on American sleaze duties, with the mighty Michael Fassbender not far behind.

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I have taken great delight in watching Fassbender’s star rise recently, and I’ll forever be indebted to him for his masterful portrayal of Magneto (a character very close to my heart), but I should forewarn any other of his fans, or fans of any of the other actors mentioned above, that none of them really have too much screen time. That’s not a spoiler in any way, they just sporadically appear throughout, but never for as long as expected.

Channing Tatum, though, gets a little more meat on his role and seems utterly at home in the film. The man seems built for the action/thriller genre and seems to be developing into a better, stronger actor with each performance. He was one of the few things in G.I. Joe I didn’t hate, while proving an affable, physical lead in Fighting, so with The Son Of No One and The Eagle under his belt too, I’m hoping his career slants more towards action leads than rom-com.

Haywire is more tense than it is exciting, or explosive, with some well employed moments of silence, especially when a violent outcome seems just around the corner. It’s a pity, then, that Soderbergh decided to use David Holmes’ music throughout, as it really does jar quite badly with the rest of the film’s content, especially when I loved the pairing of them in the excellent and effortlessly cool Out Of Sight.

In that early George Clooney vehicle, everything felt fresh and exciting, with its perfect blend of stylistic visuals and soothing sounds, whereas in Haywire it seems dated and massively inappropriate. When someone’s being chased down in the street, smooth retro jazz doesn’t really get the adrenaline pumping.

Curiously, the fights themselves are a strange hybrid of cinematic techniques. On one hand they’re brutal and easy to follow, giving Carano an opportunity to shine at what she does best, while providing a rare chance to let the choreography shine through. On the other, Soderbergh’s decision to avoid music and lessen the impact sounds seem odd; I thought it might be to make them seem grittier and more realistic (as in Bourne), but then faces are pummelled, smashed into various objects and there’s not a spot of blood shed. In fact, the whole film is relatively free of anything more graphic than a bruise.

It’s incredibly hard for me to actually decide where to stand on Haywire. Even as the credits were rolling and I was asked if I enjoyed the film, my response was, “I think so”. Nothing in the film made me hate it, while the likes of Tatum and Paxton did help to elevate the slightly lifeless narrative. I can’t help but feel that it was one of the few Soderbergh films that would have benefitted from a bigger budget, as there was no real spectacle outside of Carano’s encounters.

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I’ll watch it again no doubt, though this time without the action movie expectations that all the marketing unfairly pushed on it. But mainly, it’ll be for the glorious chance to watch Carano damage heads all over again, as without her, the movie would be lacking a true action star.

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3 out of 5