I am a big fan of director Steven Soderbergh. He is one of a very small handful of directors who work in a wide range of genres and consistently try out new things; he really pushes his artistic abilities and doesn't seem content to make similar films. But I have noticed a trend in his films. For every great, accomplished, interesting film, there are two or three films leading up to it that fall short, he seems to be using these two or three other films to try out the artistic ideas and devices, perfecting them for his next "Erin Brockovich", his next "Traffic", his next "Out of Sight". Some of these 'starter' films turn out to be good and have a life of their own. Others, are quickly forgotten when the more interesting, higher profile films are released and start to earn praise.
"Haywire" is one of those 'starter' films. But it has a significant problem that will all but ensure it is ultimately forgotten.
The story goes that Soderbergh saw Mixed Martial Artist Gina Carano and decided that he wanted to make a movie to showcase her talents. Lem Dobbs, a frequent collaborator, wrote a screenplay and they made this film.
The biggest problem is that the film feels like a showcase. It seems like a series of set-ups to show us the MMA stars various moves. It doesn't feel like a movie with a real, significant plot or narrative.
Mallory (Carano) walks into a diner in upstate New York and seems to take solace in the brief moment of respite and the cup of coffee that comes with it. But the moment is short-lived. Aaron (Channing Tatum) arrives and states that he is taking her back. But she doesn't want to go, so they get into a no-holds barred fight and do a lot of damage to each other and the diner. Mallory manages to escape and convinces Scott (Michael Angarano), a local kid, to let her use his car. As they escape, she tells him the story leading up to the confrontation in the diner. Two men (Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas) hire a Black Ops company run by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) to retrieve a journalist being held hostage in Barcelona. They insist Mallory be a member of the team, because they want her expertise, her skills. Things don't go as planned and Mallory is determined to take out the people responsible. This leads her to track the men responsible from Barcelona to Dublin to New York to New Mexico.
From the moment the film begins, you get the feeling the filmmakers want to create the female equivalent of a typical Jackie Chan or Jet Li film, the type of film that thrusts the martial arts stars into a decidedly North American world and narrative, to give them the opportunity to show off their stuff and become an international star. The difference here is that Jackie Chan's films are usually presented with a wink and a nudge clueing us into the fact the filmmakers aren’t taking the material all that seriously. Li's films are usually more serious and definitely less enjoyable because you have more trouble believing in them. One of the problems with "Haywire" is that it takes everything very, very seriously. Because of this, we are looking for and in need of a narrative that helps us believe everything we are watching. And Dobbs creates a cliff notes version of the narrative that we need for this film to work.
Carano has an undeniable intensity about her and may have a career playing female vigilante types, the strong, silent, warrior-type. I don't see her playing emotionally complex roles, because there is simply no hint of that type of ability in this performance. I definitely see her as part of the Keanu Reeves School; the less acting required the better. Allow her to stare pensively at another character or at the horizon, and you can believe she is deep in thought, plotting the next step of her revenge against those responsible for her predicament.
The impressive cast of actors playing the men in Mallory's life are all pretty boring and even wasted. Antonio Banderas plays Rodrigo who may have an ulterior motive in hiring the black ops company Mallory works for. Or he may not. Either way, he simply stands to one side and seems to watch the proceedings as if he is watching a television show he is more interested in. During much of the film, his face is covered in a big, wooly beard. Then, it disappears, thankfully, for his last scene. Michael Douglas plays Coblenz, a CIA operative who may also have ulterior motives. At one point, he makes a blatant play for Mallory to join his forces. In doing so, he reveals more about his character and makes him a little more interesting. Michael Fassbender, the new "It" kid, plays an MI-6 operative paired with Mallory in Dublin. Their characters have the big fight in the hotel suite featured prominently in the trailer. This moment also leads to a lengthy and interesting chase sequence through the streets of Dublin. But his character barely registers. There is a scene late in the film between Fassbender and McGregor that is meant to illustrate how the "It" Kid plays a role in the story. This is another example of Soderbergh playing with timelines; chronologically this scene happens much earlier than we watch it. Channing Tatum plays Aaron. He and Carano share the most screen time together and there are hints to a relationship. But still, his character doesn't really register all that well. Tatum has six, SIX, really at least six new films, coming out this year. He's really good looking, but I have seen little evidence that he can act. I hope that one of these new films catches on or he will definitely be overexposed and people may begin to wonder what all of the fuss was about. Bill Pullman plays Mallory's dad, an ex-Marine who now enjoys a Tom Clancy-esque life as a writer living in New Mexico. His character seems so inconsequential it is almost mind-numbing. He is included to give Mallory some sort of humanity. But it doesn't work. His character is far too cold and distant, her character is too cold and distant and what happens at his house seems to shock even him. It seems difficult for either of them to show any emotion towards one another, so why should we invest any time in the relationship? What's the point?
Ewan McGregor plays Kenneth, the man in charge of the company Mallory works for. They seem to have a close relationship and it quickly becomes apparent that Kenneth is behind the scenes, pulling the strings, but it is never really clear why he is pulling those strings, trying to manipulate Mallory's life. Is it really because he holds a grudge? Is that it?
Soderbergh has used many interesting and innovative techniques in his films before, playing with narrative and visuals. Color blocked film noir, color coding scenes to keep us grounded in shifting timelines and listening to out of sync conversations are ideas Soderbergh has explored before to greater success. He uses some of these ideas here again, but doesn't really take them anywhere new. When he shows George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez staring at each other over a glass of wine as we hear their earlier conversation, it brings a heightened intensity to their words. This is one of the many things that made "Out of Sight" so interesting. In "Traffic", he gave each storyline a sort of color identity, allowing us to instantly immerse ourselves back into the sprawling narrative every time we revisit a character. He used both of these techniques in earlier works, as though auditioning them. In "Haywire", he seems to be moving backwards. Instead of trying something new in a smaller film, he is recycling ideas used in his bigger, more accomplished films and reusing them in this smaller film to lesser effect.
The Dublin sequence is involving, exciting and a really well choreographed action scene. The fight in the diner is also interesting and seems especially brutal. The problem is that everything in between seems like we have seen them a hundred if not a million times before. And everything in between just seems boring. So, we have two well done, interesting sequences sandwiched among a multitude of boring, lengthy passages. And these boring bits drag the entire film down and make it seem longer than its 90 minutes of running time. A lot longer. And it is never a good thing to leave an action film feeling as though the film was longer than it actually is.
Soderbergh's next film is "Magic Mike", from a screenplay by Channing Tatum about his life as a male stripper before he became an actor. It stars Tatum, Matt Bomer (TV's "White Collar"), Alex Pettyfer ("I Am Number 4", "Beastly") and Joe Manganiello (HBO's "True Blood") as fellow strippers. Yeah. Another Oscar contender, I'm sure. Then, his HBO biopic of Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Hopefully, Soderbergh will then be back on track and create something to rival "Out of Sight", "Erin Brockovich" or "Traffic".