Steven Soderbergh is a tough guy to peg. He made his name with a densely talkative indie about orgasms ("sex, lies, and videotape"), and in 22 films since has tackled everything from classy capers ("Out of Sight, the "Ocean's" trilogy) to the biopic of an iconic revolutionary ("Che"). But one thing is clear: the man's got style.
It's not a single style, mind you. He's as comfortable in the chiaroscuro shadows of a film noir homage like "The Good German" as in the bleached desert sunlight of his multi-stranded drug war epic "Traffic." But whatever the film, he never stints on aesthetics, an attention to detail that links his chameleonic forays across genre — including "Haywire," his most recent effort (now on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD), an inventive, smart action flick that twists our expectations just enough to feel utterly fresh.
Like many of its ilk, "Haywire" begins brutally, forcing a struggle in the deep end of the pool before tossing us the life raft of narrative. The camerawork, though, alongside the shimmering notes of David Holmes' funk-inflected jazz score, tells us we're in for something new (see what I'm talking about here). Aaron (Channing Tatum) has tracked Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), a burned operative for a shady private security contractor, to a quiet diner in upstate New York. The fisticuffs come suddenly — he tosses a cup of coffee in her face — but Soderbergh doesn't overplay his hand, refusing to pitch us into the action with a cut for every thrown punch. Instead he hangs back, moving from one perspective to another in a semi-circle, gently pushing the camera into the ring. We're spectators in a street fight.
The rest of the "Haywire" follows the lead of its opening minutes, coupling the breathless fun of intricately choreographed hand-to-hand combat with an uncommon visual intelligence. I appreciated this kind of restraint, the ability to let the muscular physicality of the actors and stunt people speak for itself. It works well in tandem with the movie's cerebral realism, in which the explosions are emotional rather than chemical.
As Mallory kicks ass and takes names, carrying us along to the film's witty, one-word final line ("shit"), it's easy to forget how hard this sort of thing is to do well: pounding music and massive fireballs are, after all, an easy crutch. Not so with Soderbergh. He's always as cool as the other side of the pillow.
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is cool, too — cold-blooded, really. He's a cipher, a CIA black ops assassin who's been brainwashed, built up, and cut loose. He can tell you, we learn in "The Bourne Identity," the license plate numbers of the cars in the parking lot, where to find a hidden gun, and how far he can run flat out at high altitude. But he can't tell you who he is. Six hours and three films after we're first introduced to Bourne, I can't be sure he has any better grasp on it, but I'm damn happy we got to watch him try.
"Identity," directed by Doug Liman, and its superior successors, "The Bourne Supremacy" and "The Bourne Ultimatum," both directed by Paul Greengrass, are not as circumspect as Soderbergh's take on the genre, but serve as a potent reminder that well-crafted movies aren't necessarily destined for the box office scrapheap. In fact, as much as "Haywire" impressed me, the "Bourne" movies are distinctly more audacious and humane. They're at once a psychological depth charge, a propulsive, compulsively watchable spy narrative, and a piece-by-piece dismembering of the post-9/11 security state.
Though I worry about summer's "The Bourne Legacy" spinning the wheel one time too many, the pedigree of the cast, many of them "Bourne" stalwarts, piqued my interest once more. The players are the key to the films' success. Even against the solid performances of the similarly skilled cast of "Haywire," Bourne's orbit of antagonists and allies shines. Alongside Damon, who nails the difficult task of playing someone who's learning once more to be human, Franka Potente, Julia Stiles, Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Albert Finney tackle the full range of responses to this tinderbox of a man. Then there's Joan Allen as CIA striver Pamela Landy. In a performance of commitment and quiet ferocity, Bourne's former enemy traces the series' deepening, darkening view of the world, coming to his aid as she begins to understand the dirty rules of the game.
And much like Soderbergh and Greengrass, masters of genre style, she recognizes that rules are made to be broken.