In spite of a tumultuous time during development, the latest Stephen Soderbergh spy thriller “Haywire,” starring former “face of women’s MMA” Gina Carano, is slated for a national theatrical release later this month. By Soderbergh’s own admission, Haywire was written as a means to get Carano on to the silver screen. The cinematic bar for star vehicle action movies like the ones that first introduced audiences to Jean-Claude Van Damme and Stephen Seagal is set incredibly low. And, for what it’s worth, Haywire gracefully leaps over it. There are even a few scenes in the movie that are unarguably great. But, Haywire also sports too much random silliness to call it a genuinely good movie.
The film opens at a diner, where Carano’s character, soldier of fortune Mallory Kane, is met by a former accomplice played by Channing Tatum. This scene was made available via Hulu as a teaser for the film and can be seen below:
As an action sequence, this opening is cinematic gold. It contains so much that is missing from contemporary fight scenes that it should be taught in film class. There’s a developing sense of tension and insight into the characters with a minimal amount of dialogue. The tempo goes from suspense building to violence so abruptly that it could startle even the most jaded viewer. The use of sustained shots with a few choice cuts adds to the feeling of chaos while still letting the audience see everything that is going on. Even the volume level on the gun firing is perfect for the effect it was meant to have.
The problem is, in watching this scene on Hulu, the world has already seen the best part of the movie. “Haywire” never repeats this level of greatness. Only one other scene comes close to being as good and most of them are much, much worse.
The remainder of the first and second act is told in flashback as Carano briefs the bystander she fled with. After a mission in Barcelona, which was shown through a montage so dense that it is impossible to know or care exactly what happened, Carano is given a new assignment by her boss, Kenneth, played by Ewan McGregor. In it, Carano is paired up with another soldier of fortune played by Michael Fassbender to pose as a couple and procure or question a person who may be a government asset of some kind. The film never clearly explains who anyone is or what exactly they do.
Regardless of why anything is happening, and the audience will certainly never know, the whole assignment starts to smell fishy, culminating in Fassbender trying to kill Carano, and Carano being left to spend the rest of the movie figuring out why. This basic premise appears in the majority of spy movies, including three out of the four Mission Impossible films.
The confrontation between Carano and Fassbender is the other saving grace scene in the film. It’s just as well shot as the opening fight scene but has enough differing elements that the movie doesn’t feel like its repeating itself. The Fassbender fight may be another one for the film schools, as it visually blends sexuality and violence in ways that will give some feminist film critics a doctoral thesis and others an aneurism. But, no matter what the fight sequence may say about the society that spawned it, the fact remains that it is both powerful and unique.
It would be cynical to call the random series of events that follows the premise a “plot.” Characters are thrown in and out at random and nothing is ever completely explained, which is ironic in a movie where the protagonist’s motivation is to piece together what is happening. It gets to the point where Mallory dryly remarking that she “doesn’t like loose ends” feels like the script making fun of anyone trying to understand the movie.
The whole second act of the film, making up about 25% of “Haywire’s” total run time, is one long scene where Carano evades a SWAT team. Literally nothing else happens, which is difficult to break down, critically. On one hand, it totally ruins the pacing of the film, makes talking about this chase scene both necessary and a spoiler because its the longest single part of the movie, and caused an entire row at the press screening to crack up laughing because no one had any idea why that chase just happened.
On the other hand, it’s a really cool chase scene. The use of interchanging close-ups and wide shots along with deliberate movements by extras in the background makes the scene feel just as intense and paranoid as evading a SWAT team should be. The majority of the chase involves building that tension of getting caught while a kind of 70′s funk track plays in the background, giving it a loveable Metal Gear feel. It’s all very good until the chase is over and it becomes apparent that there was no plot reason to have it in the first place.
The biggest question going in to “Haywire” is how the former fighter Carano would hold up as an actress. Her performance as Mallory Kane is reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance as Conan. The character is the strong, silent type who is always thinking and just a little out of place interacting with others. A neophyte actor carried over from another field can fit into that role very naturally.
While Mallory Kane is nowhere near as memorable as Schwarzenegger’s Conan, the formula still works. The only problem is that Carano sells the distant misanthrope image a little too well. The very few times in the movie where she is supposed to show some kind of emotional connection with another character come off somewhere between forced and funny.
The real problem with Haywire is that it can’t make up its mind. The film presents itself as a “who done it” intrigue plot, but everything is so disjoint and poorly explained that, by the time it’s all supposed to come together, it’s hard to remember who anyone is or why Antonio Banderas has a Castro beard.
The script also has several cues to the audience not to take the plot too seriously and just try to enjoy the visual spectacle. Characters openly joke about not being able to remember who everyone is or follow the events taking place partly as the movie’s way of telling the audience to relax. But then “Haywire” will turn around and have some kind of dramatic scene that it expects to be taken seriously.
The two fight scenes with Tatum and Fassbender are more than worth the price of admission and a credit to all those involved in the movie. But those two scenes can be found in the trailers and teasers currently available to the public. So, for all but the hard core fight scene fans, “Haywire” can probably wait until the DVD release.