The following is a reprint of our review from the AFI Festival.
At the AFI Festival L.A. “Secret Screening” — blown, and blown up, several hours before as the world premiere of Steven Soderbergh‘s action-thriller “Haywire” — the director explained how he found leading lady Gina Carano. He’d just been fired off a film — “Which happens,” he dryly noted — and he was watching mixed martial arts on TV and saw Gina Carano in action and was struck by a thought: “She’s a natural beauty and she beats people up in a cage; how could you not build a movie around her?”
Let it be noted that one of the reasons to love Soderbergh is that he is, like Scorsese or Spielberg, a moviemaker in love with movies; if, on occasion, he loves more well than wisely, then, let us accept that as part of the package deal you get and move on. “Haywire” will annoy purists who think Soderbergh’s lost his artistic side in the name of another shot-on-video experiment like “The Girlfriend Experience” that casts a non-actor actor in a lead role in the name of something more interesting than mere smooth, competent performance in the service of smooth, competent filmmaking. “Haywire” will also confuse and stultify a generation of action film fans raised on Michael Bay and Brett Ratner‘s glossy, shallow claptrap and confused into thinking that quick cutting is actual excitement and velocity. In short, if you are not a horrible snob or a hateful dullard, odds are that “Haywire” will make the pinball machine in your head go “Tilt.”
Starring Carano as a ex-Marine independent contractor in the world of guns and trouble, the plot of “Haywire” is simple and plainspoken — then again, so is Pachbel’s Canon in D, and there are a host of would-be artists who can’t get that right. Carano’s Mallory Kane is set up, slated to be killed and manages to avoid that fate, and thus begins the random and stumbling walk along the road to payback. Carano’s screen presence evokes nothing less than ’70s Pam Grier — where the effect is not that of an actor giving a natural and charismatic performance in a film, but, rather, a natural and charismatic person acting in a film. Carano’s line readings are occasionally atonal and flat, but that’s more than compensated for in the scenes where her personality and poise shine through, and if her voice may lack an elegant flow and nimble range of motion, her body, in action, has both of those in a way that speaks louder than words. Or, as Soderbergh himself said in his self-effacing and bizarre Q& A after, “Someone, 20 years ago, put Steven Seagal in a movie. Why don’t we step it up?”
Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Michael Angarano, Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas; Soderbergh has surrounded Carano with stars and familiar names not to bolster her performance but, rather, because it’s so much fun to watch Carano kick some of those people in the face. Shot by Soderbergh himself, as ever, “Haywire” is, like “The Informant!“, a movie shaped by the rhythms and rules of ’70s and ’60s entertainment. If you can imagine an action film where every fight plays out with the closed-quarters kill-or-die power of Connery vs. Shaw in the train compartment in “From Russia With Love” — and get what that kind of intensity, energy and actors hurling themselves into their own action work means in an age of digital effects, wire-work and stunt doubles — then you will appreciate just how good “Haywire” is. If you can’t see how that kind of intensity matters, and how that kind of change-up is welcome, “Haywire” will be lost on you, and that simply suggests that you cannot tell good from bad in action filmmaking, like a petulant kid screwing their face up at any vegetables, no matter how fresh, flavorful or perfectly-plated or, sporadically, drenched in cheese.
The production globe-trots, starting in snowy upstate New York, where Carano beats down a comrade for double-crossing her before car-jacking Michael Angarano and explaining the plot to him like he’s some walking Shane Black script device. This may be clunky, but it’s also one of the traditions of the action/thriller cinema (Soderbergh’s a huge “Three Days of the Condor” fan, as anyone who’s seen “Out of Sight” knows). This setting also gives us the film’s best visual-action gag (and biggest visual effect) right after a terrified Angarano exclaims “You’re a great driver!” We also get to see Barcelona, Dublin, Washington, sunny Mexico and more. Soderbergh’s cinematography is, as ever, superb — a shot of Carano and Tatum in the LED light of an airport departure lounge has the world-weary blearily-lit hum of a John Le Carre film updated for our digital age, while a climactic fight under the morning sun on the beachside shore feels like someone dropped a Donnie Yen battle into a Michelangelo Antonioni art film. The script, by Lem Dobbs, knows that it is not reinventing chess but, rather, letting a grand master play a different set of openings and gambits in pursuit of victory.
David Holmes‘ score pulses and blatts with style — it’s half Lalo Schifrin, half John Barry — and the film is full of long-take action and pursuit scenes where you only realize how superbly and meticulously choreographed they are after the fact when your pulse has cooled enough to let you count the long moments between edits. Much like the first Bourne film’s brilliant, casual moment where Matt Damon pulls the fire escape placard off the wall of a building he’s trying to escape, consulting it for the floor plan as he wheels and moves, “Haywire” is an action film that tries to convey the very real pleasure of watching an action hero actually think about what they’re doing, cool reptile reason in the hot-blooded moment. Soderbergh asked of Carano, quite rightly, “How could you not build a movie around her?” To paraphrase, when a master filmmaker attempts to reclaim the action cinema from the graveyards of money, CGI and mis-cast star power it’s been moldering in, “How could you not enjoy that film?” [A]