Almost everything about Haywire seems custom-made for my tastes, and yet I still don’t think that I really liked it and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Since I’ve been tracking my movie watching with lots of data, I’ve seen some trends that I wasn’t really expecting. If you had asked me 18 months ago what kind of movies I liked or watched most, I would have probably told you “weird dramas and science fiction,” not because that’s a cool answer, but because when I think about the movies that mean the most to me, they are of that ilk.
But my movie data reveals something quite different. For one thing, I watch a ton of action movies. From 70’s exploitation to classic samurai movies to modern super hero spectacles, action films dominate lately. I’ve missed most of the well-regarded arthouse fare from 2011 and in fact most of those types of movies that I did see didn’t rank very highly in my year-end list. I got really excited about the notion of a Soderbergh-directed action film with a badass female lead for a number of reasons. As Haywire got going, it felt like it might be the perfect blend of Soderbergh’s more off-kilter leanings and his flare for pulling together blockbuster-type movies that are more interesting than their peers. In fact, I think Haywire does all of that, but it still didn’t sit well with me.
For one thing, what Gina Carano has going for her in terms of raw ass-kickery she lacks in nuance and charisma. In one great shot the film illustrates the gap between what it is and what it could have been with a better actor in the roll of Mallory. In that scene, Mallory’s father (played by Bill Paxton–who would probably be playing her love interest in someone else’s film,) gets a glimpse of his daughter at work essentially beating a man to death and his still look of horror at the realization of what his daughter has become plays out beautifully. Paxton’s character knows that his daughter is a soldier and a killer, but like most fathers, he’s never really seen it so the emotional weight of those truths has maybe never hit him until that one moment. It amounts to a few seconds of pathos in a film that is mostly void of any other emotion, and it’s a moment that is handled gracefully by Paxton and Soderbergh. Mallory on the other hand doesn’t have to do anything in the scene other than snap a guy’s neck in the shadows. She’s good at that, but whenever the camera is in her face, she’s just painfully dull.
Haywire is essentially a spy game double cross movie. It’s never clear exactly who these contractors work for or what they are really doing, but that’s OK because we’ve seen enough of these characters in other movies to get it. I was glad that the film lacked an expository dossier breakdown where one character explains the backstory to another in a clumsy briefing or fast-walking conversation in the halls of the Pentagon. Most of that was handled in flashbacks which at least replaced perfunctory exposition. But late in the film, Soderbergh actually plays to the cheap seats by spelling out the plot mechanics in painfully unnecessary detail. It’s done once again in a flashback, but by that point, the double cross is obvious and the motivations are clear. In fact, the tidy wrap up of how the characters fit together made the movie less interesting and the same idea was handled with much more panache in Oceans Twelve.
Lastly, and I grant you that this is just a ‘me thing,’ I don’t find Carano’s MMA fighting style to be all that cinematic. There was a cool trick where she gained leverage by walking backwards up a wall, but most of the grappling submission moves were kind of dull. I mean, the climax of almost every fight was the main character holding another one until they passed out or broke something. Effective, yes, but it’s not that much fun to watch. I guess that I generally prefer more kinetic and acrobatic fight choreography, so the action here wasn’t all that thrilling.
In the end, I think Haywire is a beautifully shot film with Soderbergh’s mark all over it, but it just feels a little hollow. It lacks the emotional weight of The Limey and the fun of Out of Sight or the Oceans movies. I never felt like Carano was really in danger, and the villains’ villany was so mundane that the film never really had anything to pay off. It’s hard to put this in the ‘one for them’ column for Soderbergh, who imbued the flick with a nice amount of style and some odd touches, but it doesn’t feel like one of his films that I’m ever going to return to, either.