Drawing ever closer to his self-projected retirement date, Steven Soderbergh is undoubtedly one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers. His prior directorial credit Contagion released a mere 4 months ago, Soderbergh is back with Haywire, interestingly comparable as a companion piece of sorts, the two sharing a good deal in common: a wide cast of top names; a variety of international settings; slight twists on familiar genre formulas. Haywire follows Mallory Kane, the top operative of a firm hired by the government to conduct certain extra-legal operations. Caught up in an indistinct web of subterfuge and indiscriminate loyalties, Mallory finds herself on the run from her former allies, uncertain of whom she can trust and who is pulling the strings behind a grand conspiracy of ever-increasing proportions.
Haywire’s primary similarity to Contagion lies in the roster of talent Soderbergh assembles to enact his scenes. Surrounding the relatively unknown Carano in the lead role is an impressive cast of top-shelf supporting performers. McGregor does well as Kenneth, the head of the firm and Mallory’s jaded ex-lover, though it is at times difficult to fully believe him as a threatening force seated at the head of a powerful organisation. Fassbender is suitably suave in the role of Paul, an independent agent with whom Mallory consorts in Dublin, his charisma and charm making him ever the welcome presence onscreen. Evoking the spirit of the late Fidel Castro is a heavily bearded Banderas, who wavers in his portrayal between enigmatic Cuban businessman and cheerful Latino playboy, all the while stroking his chin-piece as though it is as distracting to him as it is to us. Douglas appears from time to time as the government liaison, a wholly unchallenging and easy role for him, but one which allows him to proudly flaunt his immortally coiffured head.
Fassbender is suitably suave in the role of Paul, an independent agent with whom Mallory consorts in Dublin, his charisma and charm making him ever the welcome presence onscreen.
By far the most attention-worthy aspect of Haywire is its sexual politics, or rather its outright refusal to acknowledge them. With new installments of the macho Bond and Bourne franchises headed our way this year, it’s rather nice to see a woman given free reign to run about the place kicking people in the head. What’s even better, however, is that Carano gets to enjoy all the high-flying fun of martial arts, chase scenes, and witty quips without the same sexualisation which has been an inherent part of female action leads in the past. We see Fassbender stripped to nothing but a towel around his waist, but Carano never shows any more than a shoulder. It’s a nice touch that bespeaks Soderbergh’s approach to his heroine loud and clear: she’s a woman, so what? That no big deal is made of this fact is certainly the film’s strongest facet, though a last-minute line of dialogue—”Oh, you shouldn’t think of her as being a woman, that would be a mistake”—briefly threatens to undermine this approach.
Good though it is to see a woman given such a strong leading role in a male-dominated genre, it doesn’t quite excuse Haywire’s many narrative issues. Chief among these is the actual structuring of the plot itself, told via a framing device that sees Mallory telling her story to a teenager whose car she has stolen. While this structure is clearly employed to facilitate an attention-grabbing opening fight sequence, it leaves us for the rest of the film having to intermittently return to the car, pulling us straight out of the action and giving us instead the awkward “comic” interludes of Michael Angarano, and eventually what is by far the film’s most extraneous and least effective CGI shot. Lem Dobbs’ script is no remarkable piece of writing, instead existing as a relatively half-baked meshing of generic conventions and stock characters. The plot is so riddled with unremarkable and overdone twists of betrayal and vengeance that it becomes difficult to pay much attention to who is selling out whom when so little effort is expended on originality.
The plot is so riddled with unremarkable and overdone twists of betrayal and vengeance that it becomes difficult to pay much attention to who is selling out whom when so little effort is expended on originality.
Plot never was the major concern of action films, and to Soderbergh’s credit he excels in the various fight and chase scenes the narrative facilitates. The hand-to-hand martial arts Carano was cast for her proficiency with are on full display, presented with a stripped-down style which makes them both visually clear and and excitingly tense. Music is done away with almost entirely, the typical loudness of an action soundtrack pushed aside in favour of a silence that accentuates the smashing of glass, the panting of participants, and the sound of real pain. Where the narrative’s complete lack of originality lets the film down, the skill of Soderbergh’s direction in these high-octane scenes makes up for it, though he is prone to excess at times. He has a distracting penchant for Dutch angles, presumably employed in an effort to contribute stylistic flourish, but eventually just overused to the point of tedium. Early scenes flicker between colour and black and white needlessly and distractingly, but fortunately this indulgence subsides after the opening fifteen minutes.
Haywire takes the formula of a straightforward action thriller and sticks to it rigidly, never daring to turn from the set course and leaving us with little we haven’t seen before to make us much care about the characters. Its treatment of a female action lead earns it respect too, but it’s not quite enough to make it a standout example of the genre’s full potential. Nonetheless, the impressive host of top actors enacts the plot with enough theatrical zeal to make it passable alongside Soderbergh’s excellently choreographed fight scenes. The strength of Carano’s character and the quality of the action she finds herself in make Haywire perfectly sound Friday night entertainment, but don’t expect to remember much come Monday.
[notification type=”star”]62/100 ~ GOOD. – The impressive host of top actors enacts Haywire with enough theatrical zeal to make it passable alongside Soderbergh’s excellently choreographed fight scenes.[/notification]