Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2012) is like a doughnut made by a world-class chef. It’s presented well, it’s got a lot of pretty sprinkles, it’s more interesting than any doughnut has the right to be, but at the end of the day it’s beneath its creator, is simple and sugary, and probably bad for you. I like doughnuts so I didn’t object to Haywire too much, but make no mistake, this is no great achievement of a movie. It’s bouncy, well-mounted and looks spectacular but at the service of a story that is overcomplicated to compensate for how slight it is. Unlike a doughnut, however, it doesn’t stay with you long; it’s more like airplane food in that regard.
The story is in the Jason Bourne line of government operatives trained to be unkillable with the government unwisely deciding to try and kill them. Our operative is Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) who is contracted by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) of MI6 to wrap up a simple job that is actually a plot on her life. She comes in contact with friends who turn out to be foes and foes who are foes from the start played by the likes of Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas. She spends a lot of her time running, fighting, and recuperating from fights.
The fight scenes, many of which are hand-to-hand, have heft to them, all too rare for this type of movie. They deftly show-off Carano’s mixed martial arts background and while they don’t have the brutal realism of an Eastern Promises (2007), they display more creativity than the usual swapping of blows we’ve grown accustomed to. Better yet, they possess that rare air of actual consequences, even when we know deep down that Mallory will prove the victor.
Why Mallory is being pursued and who all is double crossing whom is a little muddier, and at a certain point trying to figure it out extends beyond our investment in acquiring the knowledge. But the staging by Soderbergh is topnotch with interesting compositions and snappy editing that overcome some of the dry dialogue. The movie is scored by Soderbergh collaborator David Holmes whose hip, jazzy and repetitious moods (it’s like elevator music but good), similar to the ones that so improved Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven movies, pulse through Haywire. All this adds up to is a classic case of all dressed up with nowhere to go, but there’s no denying that the movie is spectacularly dressed up.
The technical aspects are undone by the script that fails to penetrate to the imagination. It weaves a tangled web but one we’re not interested in untangling. There’s not enough information given about the characters or why they act as they do, so their actions aren’t given any meaning and we’re left with a mild interest in seeing how the nugatory action on the screen gets resolved. This is more upsetting because the direction is so uniformly excellent, but when we’re not invested, that becomes window dressing. It’s rare for a visual stylist like Soderbergh to feel slow, but at 90 minutes, Haywire drags. It’s best in its very last moments, when Mallory, who has spent the whole movie as the hunted, finds out all who betrayed her and starts hunting for a change. These scenes are compelling because the motivation is clear— they reminded me of Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968)—but sadly just as it gets going, Haywire stops.
Soderbergh may be the hardest worker in the game; he seems to have a movie coming out every couple of months and they all achieve a certain quality, but like other prolific directors (Woody Allen comes to mind), there’s a sense that if some of the creativity and good ideas were pooled together, as opposed to being spread over numerous movies, the output, while less in quantity, would improve in quality. You can’t accuse Soderbergh of making the same movie over and over again (his last three movies have been about epidemics, drug trafficking and male stripping, and he does an incredible job of oscillating from big-budget studio fare to quirky independent stuff), but perhaps letting a few projects go by wouldn’t be out of line.
There was a lot made about the performance of Carano, making her film debut after a career in professional fighting, but it’s a non-issue. The things asked of her are physical and she’s a natural; the script doesn’t let us really get a sense of her acting ability. In fact, a lot of the impressive cast is wasted, spouting innocuous plot points. I did, however, like Banderas’s slimy go-between and Michael Angarano’s humorously terrified civilian whose car is apprehended by Mallory to make a getaway. There’s also good work by Bill Paxton as Carano’s father, a former player who now writes spy fiction and who speaks in clichés, giving us a look into his writing.
Soderbergh has proved that he can make a fleet thriller (there’s the Ocean’s pictures and the terrific Out of Sight ), and he’s done another punchy job here, making a movie with more creativity and flair than most action jobs, but the story doesn’t follow suit.