I was a big supporter of Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion last year, which I thought was a very well thought-out and perfectly executed simulation of what a globe-spanning plague would look like. If nothing else, making a realistic and plausible depiction of the end of the world is a very ambitious prospect from a man who can do great things when he gets ambitious. Soderbergh’s ambition has led him to make films like his excellent four-hour Che Guevara biography, his globe spanning and all-encompassing Traffic, or his interesting recreation of the 1940s Hollywood style in The Good German. However, there’s another side of his career where he makes interesting but ultimately disposable experiments seemingly on a whim. His latest film, Haywire, is unfortunately an entry into that second group. It’s a film which he probably decided to make after waking up one morning and thinking: you know, maybe it would be fun to film a fight scene today.
The film begins with a man (Channing Tatum) walking into a café, sitting down at a table with a woman (Gina Carano), and after a short discussion blows are thrown and the two get into a big fist fight. The woman, Mallory Kane, eventually wins the fight and escapes with a bystander (Michael Angarano) at the café and as they drive away the woman begins to tell the story of how she got to that point. Mallory is apparently an agent-for-hire working for a mercenary group that is now out for her head after a job that wasn’t what it seemed to be went wrong. Her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) has betrayed her and now she needs to escape from both Kenneth’s agents and normal police.
The film’s star, Gina Carano, is not a professional actress: she’s a mixed martial artist who was on the rebooted American Gladiators from a few years back. This is not the first time that Soderbergh has cast people for their real life occupation rather than their acting experience: he did a similar thing with the porn star Sasha Grey in the film The Girlfriend Experience and with an entire cast of non-actors in his 2005 experiment Bubble. In many ways Haywire feels like a similar experiment that has been disguised as a Hollywood action film. Soderbergh seems to be constructing a de-glamorized depiction of the life of a mercenary in much the same way that The Girlfriend Experience gave us a de-glamorized depiction of the life of a high end call-girl. To some extent this is a tough line to walk. The movie runs the risk of being as silly as a Hollywood action film while also lacking the fun and excitement of a Hollywood action film.
To the film’s credit, the fight scenes in the movie really are pretty good. They play out in a very direct and matter of fact way; there’s no music accompanying them and the fight choreography is blunt and brutal. It’s clear that these combatants know what they’re doing but the fights they get into remain down and dirty brawls. Other forms of action in the movie are a bit more hit-and-miss. There’s a cool cat-and-mouse scene where Mallory is chased through a couple of buildings by police, and a somewhat amusing scene where She drives a car in reverse for a rather long distance through the woods, but none of these are stand-out set-pieces that can really compete with the best scenes from Hollywood’s top action movies. For that matter there’s little here that will give low budget, but high achieving foreign action movies like The Raid either.
In short, I feel like there’s enough in Haywire to please both Soderbergh’s devoted fans and those looking for a modest action flick to rent on a Saturday afternoon, but this is hardly Soderbergh at his best. While Soderbergh is almost always able to bring at least a few good ideas to any project he works on, this is just too half-assed to really be saved by them. We deserve better in our action movies and we deserve better from our iconic directors.
**1/2 out of Four