A surprising film from an always-surprising director
by Jack Kentala
It gives me great pleasure to say, in all earnestness, that Haywire (2011 or 2012 depending on the source) is Steven Soderbergh’s best film since Contagion. And the latter came out last September.
I don’t know what the fuck happens in Mission: Impossible – Shitty Title, but I guarantee this is a better film by several magnitudes. While Soderbergh is no stranger to fringe genre filmmaking – Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and, uh, Thirteen, as well as the still-underrated Out of Sight and the film-school staple/revenger The Limey – here he tackles an action/spy/thriller mashup that plays far better to his sensibilities than, say, Paul Greengrass or David Fincher.
Much fuss has been made about the casting of Gina Carano, well versed in the world of MMA (mixed martial arts, e.g. punching someone in the face until they lose consciousness…in a steel cage!) and someone you definitely want on your side in a bar fight. Many feared that a non-vet wouldn’t carry a film or, more importantly, stand her ground against phenomenal actors like Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor. And she pulls it off completely, with a quiet verve that, for whatever reason, reminds me of Richard Jenkins in The Visitor (or, dare I say, the lead in French Resistance piece Army of Shadows, but with a shade more emotion). Carano also looks like she could double for Rachel Weisz; wouldn’t be surprised if unwitting filmgoers mistook the two.
So that’s probably a good departure point between comparing the real-life exploits of Carano versus pornstar Sasha Grey in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. It’s not like Soderbergh hasn’t used non-pros before. Anyone remember Bubble? I sure do, and not just because it was fantastic. I think it’s definitely the fact that sliding Grey into the role of an escort and Carano into a physically-lethal operator in Haywire that led to this dubious comparison. Depending who you ask, the question is either “Who’s the worse actor?” or “Who’s surprisingly excellent?”
I think I’ll leave it at that.
Haywire is also very special because it’s a Soderbergh trifecta: he directed it, shot it (as DP Peter Andrews, as per guild rules), and cut it (as Mary Ann Bernard, also because of guild rules). It’s not as rare as a Soderbergh quadfecta (Solaris, which SS directed, shot, cut, and adapted [very liberally from Stanislaw Lem's book rather than Tarkovsky's film]) or the quinfecta (Schizopolis, with the man as director, writer, DP, lead actor, and music [sort of]). There’s a school of thought (actually a film school of thought that was drilled into my head [by a certain institution] and brashly discarded when I set about both my student shorts and no-budget features) that you should only do one thing on a film, somehow reasoning that if you, say, direct and shoot, you can only concentrate on one or the other. Haywire proves counter to this argument. Contagion (which SS “only” directed and shot), which everyone absolutely loves (right?), proves that the man can wear many hats and still deliver an unfairly-consistent film. (Wish I could do the same!)
I’m working off an outline written on a napkin, so you’re going to have to bear with me. This was also supposed to just be a bulleted list.
I’m mentally going back to Salt, starring Angelina Jolie as a woman spy who can beat the shit out of people. But in that I didn’t once really think about gender roles in action movies, mostly since Jolie has done a lot of those. For a hardcore MMA fighter, Carano is miraculously easy on the eyes (yeah, I’ll trot out the Rachel Weisz comparison again), but she’s not as impossibly beautiful as Angelina Jolie. (If nothing else, Carano’s lips aren’t the size of those wax ones you used to buy as a kid.) So while Jolie has operated largely in the capacity as eye-candy-that-fights (Exhibit A: In Wanted, yeah, she kicks ass, takes names, etc., but also steps nude out of a bathtub while two dudes look on and pop hidden boners.), Carano doesn’t have the burden of having to look too pretty to sell her character because, hell, if her character was too pretty we’d want to check her resume. A colleague and I have an ongoing debate about Haywire, in which he insists Carano is far too low-key to play the lead. I countered saying that this sort of “realistic” spy film (aka not the sort of film with Bourne-esque miracle stunts) exists in the “real world” where a spy’s best asset is their ability to melt into a crowd. Granted, for a film, you have to strike a balance. I thought that Carano made that balance work; my friend didn’t.
(Aside: Just remembered that Salt was actually written with Tom Cruise in mind before they switched it to Jolie with nary a difference.)
And while Soderbergh has dabbled in pretty much everything, he’s fairly new at action outside of some scenes in the Ocean’s, Out of Sight, and a little in The Limey and Traffic. Well, Che is about dudes with rifles and grenades, whereas there are probably less than twenty gunshots in the whole of Haywire. Soderbergh (or screenwriter Lem Dobbs) wisely stuck with close-quarters combat, which is absolutely brutal. It’s much moreso brutal because Soderbergh lets David Holmes’ score completely drop out during fights; all we hear are body blows, things breaking, and gunshots. (Another aside: Gunshots in movies are “movie gunshots” that sound nothing like what actual gunshots sound like. I’ve fired many guns in real life and the sound is more of a singular, blow-out BLAM than a “movie gunshot” that sounds like twenty different things happening at once. Haywire gets gunshots right.) Soderbergh also wisely keeps the shots as wide as possible, which is akin to kung-fu films and early Jackie Chan (like Police Story or Druken Master II, not his American bullshit, back when Jackie Chan could fall three stories onto hard ground [as he did in Project A] and not die), which showed that the actors actually had some skill. This was long before the What The Fuck Is Happening? It’s Cut Too Fast! trend that’s been going on in Hollywood for a while, which was first used to hide the stuntmen and now is employed for reasons that are beyond me. (As much as I love exactly 41% of The Dark Knight, I hate their obtuse, obstructed, dark-as-fuck, edited-so-fast-it-could-induce-a-seizure fight choreography. And it extends far beyond just that film.)
Unfortunately, while scenes with Carano and random dudes (most likely stuntmen) duking it out are kept whole with longer and wider shots (since Carano can easily hold her own), her bouts with Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor are cut a little faster because, presumably, those guys needed a double lest they wanted a broken skull.
While I’m grinding out minor quibbles, here’s another: The whole framing device for about 75% of the story is lame. To summarize: Carano gets out of a hotspot by carjacking a car and its driver. For a private-ops spy, she sure spills her entire narrative to her passenger, and even though it’s in the spirit of trying to clear her name, it’s a tad convenient and cuts up the past and present at not-always-perfect points. Also: The carjacked man looks and sounds so much like Edward Norton (especially through windshield glare) that I had to double-check IMDb that it wasn’t him. Here‘s what I’m talking abut, though he looks a lot less doughy in the film.
One last caveat: The film seemed too short. That’s actually probably the biggest compliment I can offer up. It’s just that the spy genre has trained viewers to expect acts 1 and 2 to plot out the final “job” that unfolds in act 3. Here, the two main “jobs” blend into each other and, individually, don’t last that long. If you see Haywire, you’ll know what I mean when, near the end, Channing Tatum has a somewhat dumbing realization and says, “I was in Barcelona seven days ago?”
Much like I gushed in my thoughts on Contagion, it’s astounding how many great players are in the film given its $15 million budget. Carano probably came in on the cheap, and the rest must owe Soderbergh favors for dogsitting or driving them to the airport at 5 a.m. one morning or something. It’s like the starting lineup for badasses past and present: Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton (not Pullman), Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas. All that was missing was a Matt Damon cameo. (And Che Part 2 showed that Damon can have a minutes-long cameo without derailing the film and making everyone say, “Hey!… Isn’t that Matt Damon?” Probably because he was wearing a hat and speaking Spanish, albeit Matt-Damon-sounding Spanish.)
Haywire was great. It’ll be great again when it hits DVD in two months and I can watch it again, most likely with the always-excellent commentaries by Soderbergh. But no matter how hard I try, all these recent Soderbergh films are depressing because the man insists that he’s retiring after Magic Mike (let’s just all pretend it’s not about male stripping so we won’t feel weird getting tickets), his HBO-miniseries biopic on Liberace, and a 2013 film currently titled The Bitter Pill. I feel like I’m pre-eulogizing, but even if Haywire is derided as a subpar genre pic (most likely by those whose palette is more used to Mission: Impossible – Shitty Title, the schizo Bournes, and whatever turd the next James Bond turns out to be), Soderbergh threw his full force (or at least the trifecta) behind a new genre, a first-time lead, and a non-sexy (read: non-Ocean’s) style. And it came together. And I want more.