Review: Haywire

From James Bond to Jason Bourne and everything in between, the spy sub genre of action cinema has existed for decades. Although consistently male dominated, every once in a while, the genre adopts a female protagonist, but few have been truly memorable. Despite the tantalizing prospect of a beautiful woman kicking ass around the world, there has been a distinct lack of believability associated with the concept, often with the physical capability of the actress. It has not been uncommon from the male perspective to hire wrestlers or professional fighters instead of traditional actors, but the practice has been uncommon for the opposite sex. One can train actress to engage in fight scenes, but no matter how convincing the choreography and editing, the artifice is hard to disregard. After all, action films with female protagonists tend to favor their “assets” over all other things. In the hands of any lesser director, Haywire could have oh so easily been another forgettable title in the kick ass girl action genre. It’s a lucky thing those hands are Steven Soderbergh’s, who crafts an otherwise predictable plot into one of the most stylish and cinematic action films of the last few years.

The kick ass female protagonist of Haywire is Mallory Kane, as portrayed by MMA fighter Gina Carano. As with most spy and secret agent films, Haywire has a fairly ridiculous plot involving double crosses and twists as Kane finds that the private company she works for sold her out whenever she was on an extraction mission in Barcelona, Spain. In all honesty, as much as I prefer an emphasis on plot in films, it became clear early on for me that narrative was not Soderbergh’s interest here. This is a film that is agile and exacting, a reflection of Mallory. One of the opening shots struck me and told me everything I needed to know about her: As she enters a coffee shop, the camera stays on a medium of her, as she cautiously surveys her surroundings. Then, once she finds a booth, she immediately goes for it without hesitation, and the simple pan of the camera is just as decisive. Although Carano’s performance displays little personality, it is because her character does not need to exert personality. She purposefully contrasts with her suave male antagonists, including such smooth talkers as Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas. It’s even more of a pleasure to see an unknown such as her truly bring down the hammer on these guys, all of whom have been in action films previously.

What really sets Haywire apart from many of the action films made today is the execution of the action scenes themselves. Where almost every single film before it resorts to disorienting editing, with shot length ranging anywhere from one to three seconds, all in kinetic, handheld close ups, Soderbergh takes the opposite route. In every major set piece, he holds the camera back in medium and wide shots, and maintains those shots for anywhere from five to eight seconds in some cases, only employing fast editing for emphasis. That may not sound like much, but allow me to illustrate. Notice the radical differences in editorial pacing here between Haywire and The Bourne Supremacy.

I’d like to clarify and say that the Bourne fight is terrific in its own way, but has been imitated so often that it no longer excites me. Soderbergh’s approach, on the other hand feels light and refreshing in contrast. In addition, allowing those shots to play out in longer takes adds the most important layer on to the entire enterprise: believability. When you see Carano punch Channing Tatum in the face, you can bet he feels it. More than simply providing memorable action sequences, Soderbergh applies a cinematic polish that coats his most popular commercial films such as the Ocean’s trilogy. The film actually begins in media res, and works through terrific parallel editing to provide the backstory for where Mallory is by the time we’ve formally met her. Soderbergh has been a champion of digital filmmaking ever since the advent of the RED, and his self photography here is as calculating and precise as always. Adding to the smooth visual polish is the crackerjack score by David Holmes, which recalls a 1970’s vibe. I will concede that in the grand scheme of things, Haywire may end up being noted in Soderbergh’s oeuvre as a minor work, more of an experimental exercise than anything. The plot lacks depth yes, and the film moves so fast that it could care less about character development, but in the realm of style over substance, you can bet Soderbergh got a real work out.

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~ by romancinema on January 23, 2012.

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