In his big-ticket films, Steven Soderbergh has grown foremost into a craftsman, a technically superb filmmaker less interested in bending or subverting genre than he is in adapting to and flawlessly executing whatever genre happens to have loped into his gaze. With Haywire, that gaze shifts to a realm hitherto occupied by the likes of Segal, Van Damme, and Stallone.
Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter and American gladiator, stars in her first film role as Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine contracted by a shadowy, unnamed private company. Over the film’s first half hour, she is double-crossed, implicated in a killing, escapes her would-be assassin, and sets out for revenge and information. Like Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, any of the Ocean’s movies, or even the more recent Contagion, you know what film archetypes Soderbergh is working with pretty early on. You sense that Mallory is probably going to kick ass and power through; the character is merely the newest incarnation in a particular filmic lineage that was last occupied by Jason Bourne. Soderbergh has said that Haywire is meant to showcase Carano’s skills as a kickboxer and martial artist in particular, and this it does admirably. Carano’s competence as a professional fighter means that the film doesn’t have to rely on the same assembly of split-second shots that define the combat in the Bourne films.
Unfortunately, Carano is also what makes Haywire ultimately such a mess. Her faults as an actor never allow the viewer to become immersed in the film; at times, particularly during a car ride that frames much of the first couple acts, it’s as if you can see the screenplay in front of you, a cursor still blinking at the end of each of Mallory’s lines. Perhaps as an antidote, Soderbergh has enlisted plenty of marquee supporting talent, with Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, and the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender all assisting and, frankly, acting circles around Carano. The thing is, Soderbergh probably wouldn’t want it any other way. The film’s staging and its shots are so considered and minutely orchestrated that it’s clear Soderbergh is simply trying to make his ideal version of something we’ve all seen before. Taking this intention into account, it’s apparent that the film’s priorities should lie more with the star’s abilities as a fighter than with her abilities as a thespian. Whether or not the result is watchable depends primarily on one’s attitude towards cheesy action films.
That isn’t to say Soderbergh operates only as a genre filmmaker; mostly he’s just letting himself work within arbitrary limitations he’s assigned himself. His respect for technique overrides other impulses towards novelty or transcendence, a tendency that helps explain why he might stuff this whole movie thing (after his next two) and focus full-time on his painting. After all, this is a man who watched Fincher’s exercise in precision, The Social Network, five times while working on Haywire. In the past, Soderbergh has permitted himself certain other obstructions, such as the use of local non-actors for Bubble or the ban on really anything conventional at all in Schizopolis. What ultimately comes to define Soderbergh’s style is how considered his craftsmanship can be in the face of his own obstacles. You don’t need to look much further than his insistence on sharp, distinctive typography in all his title cards to understand how few of his film’s details he allows to pass unconsidered. One consequence of this technical focus is that elements like writing and story fall by the wayside. That Haywire disappoints has much to do with the film’s lack of an ending; what little plot there is to bridge the time between fights doesn’t cohere enough to resolve satisfactorily. In this, too, maybe Soderbergh is nodding towards the genre he’s aping: what better way to set up a sequel than to forget to finish the first one.