AKA Knockout, Agent Mallory
Starring Gina Carano, Michael Angarano, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Julian Alcaraz, Eddie J. Fernandez, Anthony Brandon Wong, Michael Fassbender, Mathieu Kassovitz, Bill Paxton
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Why make the same tired genre film with the same tired genre conventions when you can do something different? This is essentially the Soderbergh manifesto, and he continues to display his ability to subvert the genre film with Haywire. I really haven’t delved deep into Soderbergh’s filmography, but I always think of his movies as either “the big A-Picture” or “the low-budget B-Picture”. He seems to like to bounce back and forth between the two, with the low-budget ones being somewhat experimental. His last released film, Contagion, definitely feels like the A (while still being somewhat daring and experimental), while Haywire definitely feels like the B. I don’t mean that as a slight in any sense, merely as a point of reference for fans that might be seeking a way to classify this somewhat hard to peg movie. The cast would suggest a giant ensemble movie, but it’s really much more reserved than that.
Gina Carano plays a black ops contractor tasked with rescuing a Chinese hostage in Barcelona. The job is a simple one, but as the film unfolds we find that there is more going on under the surface than it would appear. The film’s story is not told directly, requiring the viewer to piece it together themselves. It’s rather simple when you boil it down, but Soderbergh’s editing and somewhat fractured storytelling help it from getting too clichéd. On the flip side of that, the presentation of the story also gives the film an aloof quality that makes it hard to connect with. It’s not a spy picture, and it’s not a Bourne movie, but it is a bit of both. I just think that it’s in your best interest to leave any and all expectations at the door that this will be an action film, because in reality it’s something truly different.
That’s not to say that there isn’t action in Haywire. There’s a lot, actually. The sequences are quick and dirty, confined mostly to hand-to-hand fights and a couple of good chases. But what’s interesting about Haywire is Soderbergh’s focus on downplaying the action. While most directors would go in excited, injecting emotion and intensity into their action scenes, Soderbergh again continues to subvert and decides to simply allow the fight to stand on its own. There’s no score over these moments to punctuate the reality of the situation, it’s simply two combatants battling for their lives. Soderbergh has always been concerned with bringing reality to fiction filmmaking, perhaps most obviously in Contagion, and his “action” picture is no different.
As a martial arts fan, the fights aren’t as exciting as I know they could be, but for what they are, they’re pretty fun. The hits to Carano look hard and real at times, making me wonder if her background as an MMA fighter allowed the actors and stuntmen to get actual shots in to sell the reality of the fights. I think not, but there were a couple of hits to the face that looked “convincing”. Her fight with Michael Fassbender is the centerpiece to the film, and its showiest moment, but for me the earlier fight that led out of a lengthy foot chase was my favorite. Fassbender looked a bit out of place next to Carano’s obvious skill, but besides some nitpicking, I think he held his own well. Carano’s use of choke holds and throws reminded me instantly of Donnie Yen’s choreography for Flash Point, and I have to wonder if Soderbergh caught that film and it led to the genesis of this experiment of casting a genuine MMA champ in the film’s lead role.
Much controversy surrounded the film’s release over the dubbing of Gina Carano’s voice. The producers and Soderbergh have been purposefully vague and specific in their use of the word “altered”, so it seems like they passed her dialogue through some filters when creating the final mix instead of truly replacing her voice with another. In some scenes this is remarkably noticeable, and in these moments you can’t help but question the decision. Could her voice, and its delivery, have been so bad that this is better? I’m no stranger to shitty dubbing, but thankfully it doesn’t overtake the film, which is sparse in its use of dialogue anyway.
Haywire is also a very stark film without any emotions being forced at you. The score sells the coolness of Carano’s action, but it rarely scores the moments that would traditionally be played up in a mainstream film—yet another example of why this is one of Soderbergh experimental B-pictures. Like Contagion‘s, Haywire‘s score is nothing short of perfect. It expertly locks into the visuals and creates a mood that is thick, distinct and groovy. The score is driving, retro-styled modern funk and gives the film a 70s action/Blaxploitation vibe, and I loved it. The best example of this is during the hostage rescue scene early on. The scene plays out without sound or dialogue, choosing instead to feature the funky score exclusively. It retains the tension of a traditional scene, with the relentless funky groove ratcheting up the intensity as the scene plays out. This could be my love of funk and groove-based music talking, but I thought the score worked brilliantly (and have been surprised to see many people knocking it).
I’ll admit that it is a little strange to have such a low-key action movie filled with huge A-list stars, and perhaps it was a ploy to get people to go see it with an unproven first-timer in the lead role, but I think it would have worked better with a team of fresh-faced newcomers filling out the entire film. The big actors worked fine and they do their jobs well, but there are times when it seems like they want to break free of the film’s laid back vibe and strut. They crave the attention, but Soderbergh flatly refuses them that in Haywire. I greatly enjoyed watching the film, but this is definitely one that will split the room.