Steven Soderbergh, director of Sex, Lies & Videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich and the George Clooney starring Ocean’s trilogy, has long been one of my favourite filmmakers. For my money, one of the most cine-literate of directors working today, his insistence on hopping genres, working fast and immersing himself in all areas of film (creating alternate edits of other directors film’s, appearing on other directors commentary tracks and even shooting second unit on mega-blockbuster The Hunger Games) shows his true enthusiasm and love of film, making him an inspiration to myself and millions of others around the world.
His films exhibit an artful, intelligent approach to cinematic storytelling; think of the simple but effective colour coding to differentiate between locations in Traffic; the harsh, washed out yellows of Tijuana and the steely blues of Cincinnati or the gloriously woozy, time-bending editing in revenge flick The Limey. But his use of such devices are never merely cerebral exercises and never allowed to get in the way of plot, or character.
Even his misfires are worthy of study and debate. His appraisal of a film’s commercial ability is, by his own admission, rather shaky, with him claiming never to know exactly what an audience will or will not respond to; this didn’t preclude him from directing – in the three years between 1998 and 2001 – five great and wildly different examples of intelligent mainstream films (Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s 11), even going up against himself with two Oscar nominations for best director in 2000 for Brockovich and Traffic (he won, for Traffic).
His jumping from genre to genre – from the non-English language epic Ché (parts 1 & 2) to the virus disaster movie Contagion and from the claustrophobic noir of Kafka to the chummy glitz of Ocean’s 11 and its sequels – has taken him down many roads. But one place he has never really been is the balls-in-a-wheelbarrow action movie. Until now. While flicking through the TV stations one night the director landed on a Mixed Martial Arts fight. When a young woman named Gina Carano entered the cage and began punching and kicking her way across the screen, he found himself entranced; someone should base a film around this woman, he thought. When he combined this idea with his long-held desire to make an old-school spy film, a descendant of the Michael Caine/Harry Palmer films (as opposed to a Bond/Bourne style movie) Haywire was born.
The film follows ex-Marine Mallory Kane (Carano), now a “private contractor” who is double-crossed and left to fight her way to the bottom of a conspiracy that takes in the US Government, her handler Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), a Chinese dissident journalist and a British Mi6 agent (Michael Fassbender).
Jetting around the world, from Washington to Barcelona to Dublin, this feels old school enough, with frequent Soderbergh collaborator David Holmes providing a bass-heavy Lalo Schifrin inspired score. An elongated foot-chase through the streets of Barcelona is an early highlight, with Kane running down her prey with Terminator style relentlessness. Carano, despite never having acted before, is good enough, even if her character was developed specifically not to give her any emotional scenes or grandstanding speeches.
What pays off here though is her extraordinary physicality. In the films fight scenes (and in particular the brutal hotel room showdown with Fassbender) she is incredible. Agile, fast and with a kick that could derail a train, she owns the screen when she’s fighting. Soderbergh has used this to his advantage and completely eschews the traditional fast-cutting style of most fight cinema; instead, these scenes breathe, completely without music and often taking in a long stream of hard – and I mean hard – fight choreography in one uninterrupted take.
As a fight fan I would hope for big things from Carano, but honestly I don’t know if she has the acting chops (or the desire) to break through into mainstream cinema and I can’t help but feel that maybe the industry doesn’t have the roles (or the desire) to accommodate her; on the strength of her turn here it would be a real shame if she went on to become a DTV D-lister (another Cynthia Rothrock the world does not need).
The film is not flawless; McGregor turns in another pretty woeful American accent and, if the whole “burned by the company” plotline is a bit played out, Haywire (scripted by Kafka and The Limey’s Lem Dobb’s) doesn’t add much to the recipe. In fact, it doesn’t even really try to, instead remaining content to jump from one set piece to the next and – to be fair – at under ninety minutes, it’s hard to begrudge it that. Also featuring Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton and Antonio Banderas, the whole film is shot and edited beautifully – as you would expect from Soderbergh – and stands alongside David Mamet’s Red Belt as a martial arts film that has a pedigree way higher than most.
The DVD and Blu Ray is available to buy on May 21st and includes trailer, commentary, featurettes on Carano’s intensive fight and gun training, the men of Haywire and the characters of Haywire.