Some people have been treating Steven Soderbergh's recent delving into the sordid, unspeakable world of "genre filmmaking" as though the director had suddenly picked up an enormous coke habit and fallen completely off the grid. Talk to some of the director's most fervent fans, and they'll equate watching a movie like Contagion to walking into a Burger King and seeing your high school crush 200 pounds heavier and working the drive-thru line. I don't think that assessment is entirely fair. Soderbergh has dabbled in genre filmmaking for much of his career. After all, what is Solaris but an exceptionally thinky sci-fi movie? What is the entire Ocean's Eleven franchise but a series of elaborate goofs of the heist film genre? If you get right down to the brass tacks of it, The Limey is really just a super-arty revenge thriller.
There is a difference, however, between Soderbergh's recent output and his genre dabblings of his early career. In movies like Solaris and The Limey, Soderbergh as an artist was front and center. These were exceptionally smart, wonderfully creative, and deeply thoughtful films that are worth discussing in the context of a filmmaker's greatest works. Movies like Contagion, and his latest film, the spy-thriller Haywire, probably aren't worth including in that conversation.
It's not that these are bad movies, but they're far more disposable than what we're accustomed to from Soderbergh. Haywire, in particular, feels like a bid of an odd lark for the director. In re-teaming with Limey screenwriter Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh tasked him with writing a bad-ass action movie where a woman "beats her way through the rest of the cast." Dobbs did precisely this. However, unlike their last collaboration, Soderbergh seems to have mostly stuck to Dobbs' script, and just layered on his usual off-kilter lighting and David Holmes scoring onto whatever it was Dobbs churned out. The end result feels a little bit like an exceedingly classy version of a direct-to-video action movie that normally would have starred a Wesley Snipes or Steven Seagal. Ultimately, the only real reasons to ever bother watching Haywire are for the sake of seeing Soderbergh stitch his personal style onto such a garden-variety thriller, and to see its star. former MMA fighter Gina Carano, beat the living shit out of some of the best actors of our time.
Much as Soderbergh did with Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, the director cast Carano largely on the basis of her past body of work--a body of work, in this case, that heavily revolved around beating people's faces in. Carano's acting work is limited to some time on American Gladiators, a couple of cheap B-movies, and an inexplicable appearance in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. With this in mind, you would be forgiven for questioning whether Carano's acting abilities can carry an entire movie forward. To this, I say don't worry. Her acting abilities are solid enough, but even if they weren't, Soderbergh had a back-up plan.
Specifically, he did what he always does, and cast a bunch of his best actor friends in roles that, in the direct-to-video version of this movie, probably would have starred the likes of William Atherton or Josh Lucas. Instead, he has Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, and Ewan McGregor on board for a tale of spies revenging one another. The plot, such as it is, concerns Carano's Mallory Kane, a contract espionage specialist and former Marine who finds herself burned by her previous employers. We initially meet her in the snowy reaches of Upstate New York, waiting in a diner for someone. That someone turns out to be Tatum, a former colleague of hers. Within three minutes of the film's opening, she and Tatum are all but laying waste to this quaint little coffee shop as they try desperately to beat the other into unconsciousness.
Such is the basic structure of Haywire. Roughly every ten minutes or so, the movie swaps dialogue and story progression for Carano punching someone half to death. The latter half of that equation is Haywire's strength. Carano, again, is a solid enough actress, in the way that Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Wesley Snipes, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger are solid "enough" actors. Actor-to-actor chemistry maybe isn't her thing, but she is a commanding physical presence on-screen, and Soderbergh wisely lets her fists do much of her talking. She has at least three or four fights in Haywire that are as brutal as anything I've seen in a mainstream action film. These scenes are certainly effective due to Soderberg's hyper-focus on the sounds of fists meeting flesh and skulls meeting furniture. But they're also effective because Carano's toughness is wholly believable. She's not the usual waif we're accustomed to seeing kick ass in movies like this. She's a beautiful woman who can be alluringly sexy and utterly, frighteningly brutal within seconds of each other. In this regard, Soderbergh certainly seemed to know what he was doing in casting her.
The problem is that there is a whole rest of the movie to deal with, and that rest of the movie often deals with conspiracies and double-crosses that are as boilerplate as anything the spy genre has ever seen. The ins and outs of who burned her, and why, make up the crux of the storytelling, but there's really not much reason to care. Dobbs' script doesn't make much effort to try and surprise you with its revelations--instead, we're expected to simply understand that there are shady things going on, and marvel at how Mallory sorts them out. Except there's nothing terribly marvelous about any of it. Dobbs clearly spent a lot of time watching films like the Bourne trilogy and Ronin, because most of what he's offering here feels like reheated leftovers from those films and their ilk.
It's not that the spycraft he employs throughout the plot is bad, necessarily. There are a few nifty scenes of Carano evading capture and using her spy training to bob and weave around her would-be killers. But it's all stuff that feels familiar, and perhaps a bit overdone. It's less tricky than it is hacky. Even more bizarre is the score that underlines most of these scenes. Soderbergh employing David Holmes to soundtrack his movie is not a strange occurrence, but Holmes' grooves give Haywire a '70s cop show flavor that's completely incongruous to the more nasty, brutal undertones of the plot. In movies like Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven, Holmes' music was perfect. Here, it seems like it wandered in from another movie.
The end result of Haywire feels like a semi-realized proof-of-concept video for Steven Soderbergh as an action director. It's as if he made Haywire just for the sake of telling the world, "Hey, I can totally make an action movie if I want to." It's surreal seeing actors like Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas showing up for such seemingly inconsequential roles in such an inconsequential film, but that's the power of Steven Soderbergh, it seems. If nothing else, Haywire makes a great demo reel for any future work Carano might want to seek out. And as for the audience? It's a fun-enough distraction. This may be trivial Soderbergh, but even trivial Soderbergh tends to outclass the bulk of what comes to theaters these days.