Steven Soderbergh movies are well-made. Always. They’re sleek, self-conscious, calculated, cool–a cine-combo that’s served him, and audiences, well over the years.
Look at his eclectic buffet of an IMDb page to remind yourself that this is the guy who cooked up Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven in the course of three short years. He knows how to navigate genres and round up superior talent for his big budget and indie projects alike, while still holding himself entirely accountable for them. (Soderbergh often acts as his own cinematographer and editor under the pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard.)
All this dexterity considered, Soderbergh achieves that rare auteur-like quality for a Hollywood director: You can dislike one of his movies, but you can’t really dislike him.
Haywire is one of those movies.
In her first feature film role, retired-MMA, fighter-athlete Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a covert security agent-for-hire who’s double-crossed by a slew of government officials and freelance operatives. We learn this during the film’s opening scene, when Kane and her accomplice sit for a cup of coffee in a rural diner. The two engage in some tersely stilted dialogue and before you can say “decaf,” their fists wind up with a few words of their own, roughing each other up in deft hand-to-hand combat. Eventually, Kane takes a customer hostage and recounts to him why she’s in the precarious position she’s in as they speed off into the remaining 80 minutes of Haywire.
Now the straight-to-DVD spine of the story is sensibly thin, but Soderbergh isn’t interested in experimenting with plot here. His latest genre exercise is more focused on the role of the Archetypal Female Lead in a Martial Arts Movie. By keeping it grounded in a familiar, albeit unfairly unimaginative, story, he allows us to see specifically what a non-actor who’s a pro-fighter can bring to it.
Framed in a fight scene, Carano brings a lot. Soderbergh dials up and strips down the lights-camera-action! spectacle, shooting everything with a wide lens and doing minimal edits, showcasing a direct and scrappy realism, while still remaining technically stylish and architecturally Soderbergh. Given her natural American Gladiators physique, we’re never “surprised” by Carano’s abilities, a way by which other female-driven action films tend to explain a woman’s combat competence. Thanks to her experience in the ring, she literally pulls her own weight against larger adversaries–all without a reductive “Hi-ya! Girls Kicking Butt” marketing campaign–and it’s completely convincing.
The trade off, however, is this little thing in movies called “acting.” When outside the MMA element, Carano’s delivery is often flat and comes across like a chilly table reading. While it’s acknowledged that Carano’s voice was lowered an octave in post-production, this doesn’t explain how the innocuous choices she makes, acting-wise, like biting her bottom lip, can look so artificial on camera. As a video game character, Carano’s Kane is engaging enough, perhaps–but then again she is a rookie in the company of heavyweights Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Michael Fassbender. It’s only when opposite Channing Tatum does it feel like Carano’s sparing with someone in her own actors’ weight class. In a related memo: Hollywood, stop trying to make Channing Tatum happen. It’s not going to happen!
While all his choices–from the sleek sophisticated title cards, use of David Holmes’ ‘70s-inspired bossa nova spy score and his commitment to casting Carano–can be appreciated, you can’t help but feel Soderbergh is sort of on vacation here. Just ask the handful of visiting Pro Bowl players who were at my screening. Here’s a handful of guys who know a thing or two about how to mix work and play on vacation, and they didn’t look too enthused by Haywire.