As he moves closer towards his announced retirement, director Steven Soderbergh has shown a particular fondness for crafting films about the inner workings of a particular system from global virus scares and the crafting of heists to the formation of dictatorships and the war on drugs. Even Soderbergh’s populist fare comes across as something overly analytical and drawn out. Which is why the interesting, but flawed Haywire stands out as an anomaly in the director’s recent filmography. It’s a straight up revenge film unconcerned with further reaching implications, but dripping with sexuality and action.
MMA fighter and former American Gladiator Gina Carano makes her big screen debut as Mallory Kane, an ace hitwoman for a private defence contractor run by her former lover Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). After being asked for specifically on two back-to-back jobs that turn out to be connected by a couple of suspect suits (Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas), Mallory finds herself marked for termination and in search of answers to go along with her revenge.
Part Kill Bill and part Out of Sight, Soderbergh takes the jerky plot structure of Tarantino’s former and grafts it onto the jazzy, hardboiled nature of a film that he’s already made. Also coming back to work with Soderbergh on this one is screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who previously penned the underappreciated The Limey. While it all comes together in an enjoyable enough package, it’s very easy to see why a film from such a lauded director with an all star cast is being shuffled off to the January dumping grounds.
The problems really begin and end with the screenplay, which tries to be ambiguous almost to a fault. The true motivations behind Mallory’s double-crossing are never made fully apparent or explained in a satisfactory manner. While the plot seems elaborately structured, it’s really quite basic. There’s no real reason for the film to jump back in forth between the past jobs and the present, where Mallory has recently escaped a potential hit from a former co-worker (Channing Tatum) and kidnapped a scared 19 year old (Michael Angarano) to use his car. By not moving simply from point A to point B, Soderbergh and Dobbs have created a film that aspires to art, but is really dumb as a box of hammers.
In a way, Haywire feels almost like a companion piece to Soderbergh’s more experimental and stripped down The Girlfriend Experience. While that film found unestablished actress-slash-porn star Sasha Grey starring in a film about prostitution, this film is about a different kind of working girl who is forced to use her sexuality in new ways. Despite Mallory saying at one point that she doesn’t know how to play the role of distracting eye candy, every fight sequence between her and her male co-stars is dripping with 60s style innuendo and somewhat erotic clinches.
This overt sexuality also adds further demerit to the story. It’s implied quite heavily that despite her gruff exterior, Mallory can’t stop sexualising her male co-workers. The unspoken argument at the heart of the film seems to be that her own sexuality makes her less of a killer (not to mention that it seems to be the direct reason she’s in this mess to begin with), despite wonderful fight sequences and laudatory patches of dialog that speak to the contrary. The actual thematic message at the heart of the film is maddeningly hard to peg down.
As for Carano’s acting ability, it’s about on par with what someone would expect from Chuck Norris or the late Brandon Lee. She’s nothing special in dramatic moments and sometimes she’s almost snicker inducing levels of bad, but she does exactly what the film asks of her. Her co-stars all know the territory quite well (including the always dapper looking Michael Fassbender, somewhat slumming it here as an MI-6 operative and a solid Bill Paxton, who plays Mallory’s novelist father), and they elevate the material beyond what probably would have been straight to DVD style trappings. Oddly enough, the person who walks away best from this film is Tatum, who arguably has the most interesting character in the film.
It’s hard to say what audiences will think of Haywire. On one hand, it does deliver the goods in terms of action. On the other, it’s somewhat cold and far too calculating to fully work as escapist fare. It’s well directed and shot, but it’s not really in service of anything. It’s fun and memorable, but not as deep as it thinks it is. It’s exactly the kind of film that scholars will deem worthy of a critical reinterpretation about a decade from now, by which point Soderbergh’s retirement might’ve actually begun.