Friday, February 01, 2013
I’d had it on good authority that ‘Haywire’ was one of two things: an attempt (director Steven Soderbergh re-teaming with screenwriter Lem Dobbs) to recapture the reconstructive brilliance of ‘The Limey’ but here drawing on the tropes of the espionage thriller; or Soderbergh basically taking the piss with a decent chunk of studio money. And, on various levels, ‘Haywire’ is both of these things. More besides? Let’s amble through the next few paragraphs, then come back to that one.
Comparison with ‘The Limey’ will forever be the elephant in the room for ‘Haywire’, the phrase “suffering by comparison” never more true than here. ‘The Limey’ has the cleverer script and the artier direction, not to mention a more genuinely emotional hook and a powerhouse central performance, Soderbergh proving himself the first director in a couple of decades capable to giving Terence Stamp something cool and edgy and iconic to do. ‘Haywire’ on the other hand is built around Gina Carano and while there is much to be said in her favour, she ain’t no Terence Stamp and Dobbs doesn’t give her even a fraction of the salty dialogue that the earlier script is seasoned with. True, ‘Haywire’ is packed full of talented actors in subsidiary roles – Michael Fassbender, Ewan MacGregor, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas (hell, even Channing Tatum manages not to be a sop-ass pretty-boy in this one!) – but talented actors in subsidiary roles is all they are. Which is part of the joke.
Carano had made tentative forays before the camera – the documentary series ‘Fight Girls’, a bit part in ‘Blood and Bone’ – but ‘Haywire’ represents her first lead role and the responsibility which goes with it: that of carrying a movie. And in this respect, surrounding a nascent talent with established performers – generally done with the aim of “buoying up” the lead performance – can often be the kiss of death. Soderbergh is wise enough to pitch the entire timbre of the film to Carano’s strengths. A reductive critic would probably add “i.e. looking good and kicking ass” parenthetically at this point, but Carano definitely has a presence and a certain degree of charisma onscreen. Although she’s admitted that Soderbergh manipulated some of her dialogue in post-production, there’s enough going on in ‘Haywire’ to suggest Carano could carve herself a deserved niche as an action heroine.
Story-wise, what we have is some fairly generic characters – The CIA-Trained Operative Gone Renegade, The Handler, The Shady Politician Outsourcing To Private Operatives, The Latino Connection With His Own Agenda – playing out a fairly generic game of Second Guess The Next Double-Cross, the needlessly convoluted intricacies of which are glued together by a succession of fight scenes and chases, either vehicular or on foot. Soderbergh, it has to be said, shoots the action like a man determined to show up Michael Bay as a big phoney and never mind that he’s only got a micro-fraction of a Bay-style budget. The action is the primary reason for watching ‘Haywire’ and the film delivers.
It delivers while simultaneously being a knowing homage to its genre. I’m tempted to say satire rather than homage, but satire implies if not outright parody then at least a comedic overtone to the aesthetic. And ‘Haywire’ certainly isn’t a laugh-out-loud funny movie. It’s not meant to be. Although the last scene is almost guaranteed to prompt a wry smile. What ‘Haywire’ is, is a supremely intelligent director employing a playful approach to material that’s been done ad nauseum and abandoning innovation on a narrative or conceptual level in order to indulge himself in a sleight-of-hand display of technique.
Which brings us back to that first paragraph question. Is there anything more to ‘Haywire’? My personal feeling is yes: the sheer pleasure of watching Soderbergh indulge himself as described above. He has fun reducing McGregor, Douglas and Banderas’s dialogue to little more than jargon-heavy white noise: spy-speak overlayered with corporate vagary; and he has fun with structure and set-pieces. The main narrative of Carano’s character, Mallory, hightailing it across the USA in flight from (and later pursuit of) her betrayers is intercut with flashbacks to two missions – one in Barcelona, one in Dublin – which directly relate to her current predicament. Soderbergh stages the Barcelona job as a masterclass in dialogue-free exposition, and the Dublin escapade as an effortlessly effected segue from seductive Bondian elegance to Bourne-style smackdowns and rooftop chases.
‘Haywire’ is, in other words, extremely entertaining – and put together with a lot more élan than a film of this ilk would normally boast. And its leading lady is a knockout – in both senses of the word.