REVIEW: Haywire [2012]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 93 minutes | Release Date: January 20th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Relativity Media
Director(s): Steven Soderbergh
Writer(s): Lem Dobbs

“Oh, God. There’s a deer in the car.”

If not for the cast list, I would treat Steven Soderbergh‘s Haywire as the newest entry to the experimental, off-the-beaten path section of his oeuvre. Without mentioning the larger scale Che—which is quite possibly his least mainstream film of the aughts—this quiet actioner fits right in as a sibling to Bubble and especially The Girlfriend Experience by using an untrained dramatic actress inside a plot playing to her strengths. Mixed Martial Arts fighter Gina Carano won’t be winning awards for her thespian skills, but she can sure hold her own in a hallway brawl with no room to maneuver. Despite a decent number of hand-to-hand combat wars to prove it—the ones the trailer leads us to believe populate every second—the pacing is conversely very measured with the plot allowing for a lot time spent watching our badass heroine in silent contemplation. Sadly, this isn’t her strong suit.

It’s a shame too because Haywire really soars when Carano is fighting. So few films these days have the courage to shoot fights without quick editing disguising the artifice, but Soderbergh is nothing if not fearless. Beginning the tale with a stirring diner clash between her ex-Marine, now gun-for-hire Mallory and Aaron (Channing Tatum), the agent tasked to scoop her up for their boss, really sets the stage for a steady treat of action that unfortunately never quite pans out. Their brutally physical tussle almost ends everything with a gunshot before Good Samaritan Scott (Michael Angarano) jumps to the ‘damsel’s’ rescue. In hindsight he should have kept quietly still in his booth until the melee was finished because she subsequently takes his car, tells her story, and embroils him into the complicated web of deceit that’s caught her.

Flashbacks commence as we travel to Barcelona—where it all started—Ireland, San Diego, New Mexico, and Majorca in pursuit of answers. Discretely mysterious men in charge like Michael Douglas‘ Coblenz and Antonio Banderas‘ Rodrigo laconically pull the strings of private spy firm owner Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) and begin to set demands for a case we assume is for the reclamation of a hostage named Jiang (Anthony Brandon Wong). But nothing is easy as Mallory, Aaron, and a duo of nameless cohorts complete their job with the help of automatic weaponry only to find their much-needed vacation afterwards will never come. Subplots are introduced like Kenneth and Mallory’s recent split-up romantically, new orders surface to recruit new agents, and all she wants to do is leave the firm and her ex behind.

The rabbit hole trapping her disseminates at a much slower pace than one would imagine and the barely over 90-minute film feels around 120 as it crisscrosses stories of past missions told to Scott, his and Mallory’s high speed retreat through snowy forests, and the eventual culmination into uncovering the duplicitous nature of all involved. Reuniting with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, it appears as though Soderbergh hoped for a return to the success of their hit The Limey with its slowly unfolding secrets and menacing lead performance by Terence Stamp. Carano simply can’t carry this type of weight on her shoulders—even when surrounded by a litany of famous faces working hard to over-compensate in their espionage whispers. The brawler has an intriguing mix of formidable power and unorthodox beauty, but any second she isn’t pounding someone’s face in becomes time wasted.

Along with the opening fight against Tatum, Carano engages in an inspired bout with Michael Fassbender‘s Paul that may be the highlight of the film. These are two equally matched spies with mutual respect who go at each other like their lives depend on it—because it does. For a sequence that doesn’t occur until about the midway point, the trailer’s depiction ruins any chance for viewers to believe the mission they are on but doesn’t make the action any less thrilling. The thuds into walls and crashes through glass are loud and serve as the music for their dance. It’s a tango of arms and legs with grimaces and heavy breathing to prove they’re going full bore into making the scene authentic. Soderbergh’s camerawork is deliberately calculated throughout, but the skill at which the choreographed battles are framed and cut is magnificent.

A couple wonderful moments in chase stuck with me like the vehicular speeding through wintry trees in forward and reverse as Angarano adds humor with his fearful nerves after realizing mortal danger had replaced the hope of sleeping with the hot stranger he saved. But it’s a footrace that hit me hardest as we watch Carano run towards the camera with deliberately short breaths in pursuit of Jiang’s kidnapper in Barcelona. It’s the kind of lengthy verisimilitude that gets lost most times when the chase is skipped to show its explosive finish. Unfortunately, though, for every great use of real time progression there is another grinding all action to a halt. It’s cool to watch Carano jump from rooftop to rooftop in Dublin while the police are on her tail, but the monotony of her escapes only angers rather than excite through her athletic prowess.

The intricate web of spy work at least entertains when it’s allowed to take the spotlight from the physical exertion. Allegiances are never what they seem as money truly makes this world go round and the number of characters involved help make everything appear vaster than it may in fact be. Always a pleasure to see Bill Paxton and Mathieu Kassovitz slide in for brief spells, Haywire definitely has its moments whether or not the whole achieves the same level of success. I’m just glad most of the actors seemed to have fun with their roles—Angarano, Tatum, and Banderas standout—because it does help distract from the realization not much actually happens when Carano isn’t beating someone up.

[1] (Left to right.) Gina Carano and Channing Tatum star in Relativity Media’s HAYWIRE. Photo Credit: Claudette Barius ©2011 Five Continents Imports, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
[2] (Left to right.) Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender and star in Relativity Media’s HAYWIRE. Photo Credit: Claudette Barius. ©2011 Five Continents Imports, LLC. All Rights Reserved
[3] (Left to right.) Gina Carano and Antonio Banderas star in Relativity Media’s HAYWIRE. Photo Credit: Claudette Barius ©2011 Five Continents Imports, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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