Sunday, January 22, 2012

Haywire: An Ass-Kicker Supreme

Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Lem Dobbs
Starring: Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Angarano, and Channing Tatum
Director of Photography: Peter Andrews (Soderbergh), Editor: Steven Soderbergh, Production Designer: Howard Cummings, Original Music: David Holmes
Rated: R for ass-kicking, head-smashing violence.

            The pleasures in Haywire, of which are there many, derive not from the dramatic reveals or explosions or kinetic, impossible to follow, action sequences that populate most films that follow spies and the work they do. Instead, the film gives us details through cinematic delights: a tilted shot in a red-drenched palette, an abstract jazzy score, and the sound of a gunshot runging out with booming thunder. This is after all Steven Soderbergh, a director who despite being in the business for over twenty years, has continued to remain experimental and metatextual with each film, even when approaching genre exercises (most recently the virus thriller Contaigon, which evolved into a political statement on the age of Tea Party politics).

            One could argue Haywire is the closest thing he’s done to a commercial film since his Ocean’s trilogy. However, Soderbergh plays against usual genre standards so often that the film often feels much like Godard and Truffaut making a CIA black ops ass kicking thriller than the next film from Michael Bay. Style is the substance of Haywire, which uses a somewhat paint-by-the-numbers script by Lem Dobbs (who also wrote The Limey for Mr. Soderbergh) as a starting point to give the almost deadening genre a new classic, and led by the commanding performance of Gina Carano.

            Carano’s name might seem a bit unfamiliar to action geeks, as this is her first film, and she’s surrounded by some of Hollywood’s biggest male superstars. But Soderbergh, always a fan of casting based on meta-narrative elements (see: Julia Roberts in Erin Brokavich, Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience), chose Carano for her fame as one of the best female Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters in the world. Like Grey’s Chelsea in The Girlfriend Experience, Carano’s Mallory is a stone-faced and emotionless protagonist, except her job is to smash people to a pulp for money. When we first see her in the film’s opening shot, her eyes beat with intensity and fury. But when she sits down in a small coffee shop for a rendezvous, she slowly masks her feelings and plays casual, almost sexy. That is until Aaron (Channing Tatum) shows up, and the two smash each other around in all sorts of acrobatics.

            The film, in classic Soderbergh fashion, moves back and forth in time, catching us up on the history between Mallory and her contractor, Kenneth (a slimy Ewan McGregor), a job gone right (or possibly wrong) in Barcelona, an assignment to play eye candy with Michael Fassbender (who of course may upstage Carano in that department), and a betrayal. Haywire’s narrative may follow a somewhat over logical thread line, but Soderbergh finds interest in causation. When a set up for a job shows a post-it note labeled “Bay Guy #1,” clearly the director understands that we have less interest in what is happening than how it happens and in what order. When Mallory makes a young boy (a surrogate for the audience during the first half, played by Michael Angarano) repeat names and locations to her might seem like an awkward framing device, but clearly Soderbergh is calling attention to our own thought process; we can’t remember the names either, and perhaps it doesn’t matter.

            Pulsating by David Holmes’ jazzy score, Soderbergh constantly plays with our genre thrills. He gives us silence when we expect intensity. He strips the frame of color, or over-saturates it to a number of visual hues, to give worlds and locations a unique feeling. He gives us the sounds of fists smashing against torsos that feel authentic instead of calculated. And most fun of all, he gives us the prettiest boys in Hollywood, all bloodied and beaten to a pulp by a woman. Carano worked with the stunt group to choreograph the fight sequences, and all the actors did their own stunts. Soderbergh gives each fight scene its own unique, visual quality—A final set piece, set on a sun-bathed beach in Mexico, makes the actors feel more like gorgeous dancers, their shadows flying across the sand and becoming part of the landscape as the sun sets below.

Like the works of Jean Pierre-Melville, especially Bob Le Flambeur, Haywire can only end one way and one way only, and Soderbergh treats this flippantly as the inevitable instead of the resolution. He’s found a total muse in Carano—she speaks in a low and direct voice, and uses the twitches of her nose and the style of her hair to give her character nuance. Mostly though, she uses her magnetism; she has a presence, whether while remaining calm and direct during a cat and mouse tailing, or while smashing bad guys to a pulp, that few actors—male or female—could ever pull off. Soderbergh makes Mallory equally calculated and brilliant. During a chase sequence top of the roofs of Dublin, Mallory keeps running into dead ends, looking down before she leaps, and as limited in her view as the audience.

By pulling in the mainstream genre twists into his unique style, Haywire manages to be both his most accessible hit and experimental work simultaneously. That jazz score is not just an audio motif to give the feeling of cool (though that pulsates throughout); it’s a sign that Soderbergh himself is an abstract jazz artist. He’s taking the familiar and improvising, plucking strings in a different order that makes us experience action in ways most artists wouldn’t dare.

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