20 January 2012

HAYWIRE- Review

Coming just a couple of months after his viral paranoid drama Contagion, Steven Soderbergh directs Haywire, a nuts-and-bolts action movie that stars MMA fighter Gina Carano as Mallory Kane, a deadly covert operative who beats the shit out of A-list actors. Soderbergh is clearly as diverse as he is prolific, but the two films do bear some similarity, in their respective debts to B-movie cinema.

At the beginning of the movie, Mallory arrives in a diner in upstate New York, only to be confronted by a colleague, Aaron. They throw down, and a concerned teen, Scott, tries to break up the fight. Mallory quickly dispatches Aaron without his help, but recruits Scott, and borrows his car, to help her escape the men who are looking for her. She tells Scott the tale of how her employer, Kenneth, betrayed her during a mission and left her stranded overseas. Now that she's back in the States, it seems the plan is to find everyone involved in the sting and punch their faces.

The opening of the film, now widely available online as part of the promotion for the film, is pretty terrific. Soderbergh wastes no time elaborating upon what is essentially a film with a singular premise- it looks really cool when Gina Carano hits somebody. The conceit comes from the kind of exploitation films that inspired Tarantino to make Kill Bill, and Haywire's representation of a strong, arse-kicking female lead is closer to that of Beatrix Kiddo than more waifish but mean-faced heroines like, say, Cataleya or Evelyn Salt. Mallory takes a fair bit of punishment in the film's brutal fight scenes, but she gives as good as she gets, and easily comes out on top.

The field of MMA has yet to give us an Oscar-calibre sportsperson-turned-actor, and Carano doesn't buck the trend. Soderbergh is a real actor's director though, so she manages well enough. I think it's that the character of Mallory lacks charisma, more than Carano herself. She tangles with emotional scenes less powerfully than when she's in a fight, but then the film plays to her strengths. Soderbergh's direction, cinematography and editing is fantastic, and it really reclaims the apparently lost art of hand-to-hand combat on the big screen. The lack of music in all of the fight scenes give each individual blow a cringe-inducing impact, which makes the film relentlessly watchable.

Elevating the film above its B-movie leanings is the A-list cast, which lines up Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas in front of Mallory's fists of fury. Each of them, to some extent  or another, represents a paragon of masculinity that is toppled when it dares to confront Mallory. After his turn as Sean Connery, Nazi hunter in X-Men: First Class, Fassbender gives another audition piece that assures he'll be considered as the next James Bond, when Daniel Craig puts his blue trunks away. If any proof of Soderbergh's capability with actors were needed, Tatum actually gives his best performance to date- his acting is far from exquisite on his best day, so perhaps that's not saying much, but he acquits himself very well.

The unusual structure of the film will disorientate some audiences, and outright annoy others, and I have to admit that I didn't think ending in media res was as clever an idea as opening that way. At the same time, I recognise the film as a stripped-down and sinewy action flick that didn't exactly open up huge and intellectual questions to be left unanswered in any case. When people say that the plot of action films don't have to be up to much, I wish they'd say it about stuff like this, where the film itself is engaging and competent enough to overcome a lack of substance, rather than the kind of hyper-masculine direct-to-DVD dross that some of the dinosaurs of the genre continue to churn out.

Haywire comes with a displaced structure and the kind of overwhelming coolness that made Drive so popular, but it is, in essence, a self-assured yet functional action movie. It doesn't deal in delayed gratification so much as quick fixes of Gina Carano choking someone out and punching them into submission, and that's fun to watch. Soderbergh seems to move along quickly, and he's still talking about his intention to retire from filmmaking soon, which probably dashes any hopes of a potential Mallory Kane franchise. But all the same, the film sets up a credible action heroine in the form of Carano, and we can only hope that she's deployed as well in the future.

Haywire is now showing in selected cinemas nationwide.
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I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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