Monday, January 23, 2012

Movie Review: Haywire

Haywire *** ½
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh.
Written by: Lem Dobbs.
Starring: Gina Carano (Mallory), Ewan McGregor (Kenneth), Michael Fassbender (Paul), Channing Tatum (Aaron), Antonio Banderas (Rodrigo). Michael Douglas (Coblenz), Michael Angarano (Scott), Mathieu Kassovitz (Studer), Bill Paxton (Mr. Kane), Anthony Brandon Wong (Jiang).

If the Italian neo-realists were right, and everyone can play one role better than anyone else – themselves – than Steven Soderbergh seems to have taken this to heart. From the small town Ohio residents in Bubble to porn star Sasha Grey as a high end prostitute in The Girlfriend Experience and now MMA star Gina Carano as Mallory Kane, a highly trained “specialist” working for a private firm doing sensitive jobs, Soderbergh has not shied away from casting non-professional actors in his movies. No, none of these people are playing themselves (they probably come closest in Bubble), but they are more convincing in their roles than professional actors would be. Gina Carano, star of Haywire, is probably never going to win an Oscar – and Meryl Streep doesn’t have to worry about competition – but she plays the role of Mallory better than any professional actor I could think of. Because of her MMA training, it allows Soderbergh to stage some of the best hand to hand fight scenes in recent memory – and not pull any punches. The punches, kicks, chokes, slams all look and feel like they hurt – and when Mallory ends up victorious in these matchups, we have no trouble believing it, like we do sometimes when women fight men in the movies. You can tell in each moment that it really is Carano involved in these fight scenes – and you can tell that she really would kick the other guy’s ass.

The plot of Haywire is standard issue action/thriller stuff – with Mallory having to unravel a conspiracy that aims to set her up for murdering someone in Dublin that she saved in Barcelona. Written by Lem Dobbs, the movie shares much in common with his previous collaboration with Soderbergh – the wonderful The Limey (1999), which was a stripped to the bone revenge thriller that gave Terrence Stamp perhaps the best role of his career. To quote Roger Ebert, the movie is not about what it’s about, but how it’s about it. And Haywire is elevated above its genre roots by Soderbergh’s expert direction, and the performances by the entire cast.

To make the plot seem a little more complicated than it actually is, Soderbergh cuts back and forth in time. Before we know anything about Mallory, or what is happening to her, we see her in upstate New York, in a little road side diner. When a car pulls up outside, and Aaron (Channing Tatum) pulls up, she simply mutters “Shit”, and we know something bad is about to happen. After a tense conversation between the two, Aaron throws coffee in Mallory’s face, and the films first expert fistfight takes place between the two of them – with Mallory eventually winning, and hitting the road with a customer who helped her – Scott (Michael Angarano), who she tells her story to.

Soderbergh is a great director, who has said that following his epic masterpiece Che a few years ago, the desire to make “serious” movies left him, and now he just wants to make audience friendly thrillers. You can hardly blame him, as Che is one of the great accomplishments of his career – and no one seemed to notice. His last film, Contagion released just a few months ago, was an icy cold disease outbreak thriller – and was handled wonderfully. Now comes Haywire, which in the hands of another director could have easily been shit. But in the hands of Soderbergh, becomes one of the best action movies in recent memory. I imagine what Michael Bay would have done with the wonderful chase sequence through the streets and rooftops of Dublin – it would have been so rapidly edited, featured such loud, pulsating music that it would have been incoherent. But Soderbergh takes a different path – his shots last a long time in this sequence, you catch the glimpses of Mallory’s pursuers in the background, and when the fight scenes come, they are expertly choreographed, and done with a minimum of editing. Most action sequences in movies these days are incoherent and happen so fast that the audience never settles into them – never truly gets what is going on. But Soderbergh holds back – you not only see everything happening, in real time, but you hear it as well. Instead of loud, pulsating rock music, you get David Holmes playful score that often cuts out when the fights start, to better accent the groans of the combatants, the sound of punches and kicks being landed. When people fight in Haywire, it hurts. You also have to pay attention in Haywire, because Soderbergh adds so much detail in the background.

Soderbergh did a smart thing in the casting process. Knowing that Carano may not be the world’s best actress – although she holds her own in every scene, even the dialogue heavy ones – he casts great actors in every single other role. From Ewan McGregor as Mallory’s slimy boss and former boyfriend, to Michael Fassbender as a new partner who may or may not be trustworthy to Antonio Banderas as a Spanish government official to Michael Douglas as his American counterpart to Mathieu Kassovitz as a criminal to Michael Angarano as Mallory’s confidant to Bill Paxton as her father, the rest of the cast fills what could have been cookie cutter roles wonderfully, adding depth. Even Channing Tatum, who career has more bad performances than good ones, is quite good here as Aaron. Soderbergh takes his time with these characters – giving them enough space to breath. It is quite an ensemble cast for a movie like this.

Overall Haywire proves to be an early year highlight for 2012. Normally, unless you’re catching up with movies from the previous year, January is the worst month of the year for new releases, as we get movies that the studios simply dump into theatres to try and get a good weekend of opening grosses against soft competition. But Haywire is better than that. In fact, Haywire will most likely end up being one of the best action films of 2012.

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