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Haywire (2012)

January 23, 2012

 

written by: Lem Dobbs

produced by: Gregory Jacobs and Ryan Kavanagh

directed by: Steven Soderbergh

rating: R (for some violence) 

runtime: 98 min.

U.S. release date: January 20, 2012

 

Haywire is a word used for something that is disorganized or not functioning properly or someone who is erratic, crazy and out of control. Well, the latest movie by Steven Soderbergh is very organized and functioning on all cylinders, and in it there is definitely one erratic woman who seems to be crazy and out of control by just about everyone around her – but make no mistake, Mallory King is totally in control. Soderbergh has found a heroine to showcase here that is a mesmerizing powerhouse, and in a story that is anything but original, that helps out immensely. As great as former American Gladiator and MMA fighter, Gina Carano is, if in the hands of any other director, the cliches here would’ve been more overt and well, haywire. Thankfully, what we have here is an electrifying and crackling action movie with intelligence and wry humor, that makes up for the familiarity and predictability of it all.

Mallory King (Gina Carano) has been double-crossed and burned. As a former marine and current covert operative hired by a private government firm to handle “special jobs” around the globe, she has been the unassuming lethal weapon that no one wants to admit exists. After a hostage rescue in Barcelona goes awry, Mallory goes off the grid and is on the run. This is where we find her at the beginning of the movie, making her way back into the States by way of a wintry upstate New York. She wants answers and she wants revenge and with her steely resolve, we believe that’s what she’ll get, even though we barely know her.

She makes her way to a roadside diner, where she manages to find a booth to herself. Maybe she can get some rest and plan her next move. Then Aaron (Channing Tatum) walks in and sits down at her table. It’s immediately obvious that they know each other, that they have Barcelona in common, and most likely have the same occupation. Thankfully, screenwriter Lem Dobbs (reuniting with Soderbergh after 1999’s superb film “The Limey”) isn’t bothering with any exposition, instead opting for a shoot-first (literally) and answer questions later. In fact, before any further conversation can continue, Aaron brutally assaults Mallory after she declines to be brought in. The next several minutes are insane: faces are smashed and bloodied, limbs are battered and broken, and the audience is left picking up their jaw.

 

 

The tone of “Haywire” has been set. There is violence thrust upon a woman here, but she can more than handle herself – she will leave painful (sometimes fatal) souvenirs for her attackers as she plows through one obstacle after another. Yes, she experiences pain, but she’s ready for it. What is also revealed in this opening action scene, is that Soderbergh, in his first stab at a straight-up action flick, isn’t following the typical Hollywood play book. Gone is the swelling score that so often forces us to get revved up during moments of kinetic combat, and absent is the confusing close-up action filmed with shakey cam. Soderbergh employs stylistically choreographed sequences that are unique and dazzling to look at, using long takes and medium-to-wide shots that are easy to follow.

Mallory escapes that altercation with help from Scott (Michael Angarano, “Red Stare”) a kind stranger from the diner. As they drive off in his car (which of course, he “just got”), she catches him up to speed with who she is, what she does, and also about Barcelona. Other movies with a scene like this would have the protagonist barking orders to the owner of the vehicle or telling them to shut up and do as their told, etc. This is a nice switch on a familiar formula though. Mallory is conscientious of her Good Samaritan and doesn’t hold back on information that he probably doesn’t need to know, but such a tactic builds trust in her stressed-out new companion. She even gives him something to focus on as she asks him to recite all the names and key locations from the flashback scenes we see.

Those flashbacks serve a purpose, giving viewers context to how Mallory got where she’s at in the present. It also provides us with a look at what went down following the Barcelona debacle, where Mallory is coerced into a job touted as “a two-day vacation” in Dublin where she poses as the wife of Paul (Michael Fassbender), a suave British agent. The marriage is short-lived, resulting in one of the most intense hotel room encounters I’ve ever seen on film. Let’s just say that Mallory isn’t meant to wear cocktail dresses, Paul isn’t who he seems, and that particular room will never look the same again. Our time in Dublin also treats us to a spectacular chase up and down stairs, across rooftops, and (painfully) down building walls.

Throughout these scenes, Soderbergh also introduces us to Mallory’s ex/handler, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) in both flashbacks and intercut scenes. He’s left to deal with a higher-up agent (Michael Douglas, kicking back) and a slimy contractor (Antonio Banderas, stroking his bushy beard like a pet prop) in an effort to try to “control the situation”.  We also travel to New Mexico where we meet John (Bill Paxton), Mallory’s concerned father, who is probably more concerned with Mallory’s body count than her safety. All that matters to Mallory though is making sure whoever is responsible for her betrayal gets their pay.

 

 

“Haywire” exists as a vehicle for Carano, who is pretty amazing as a physical presence. That’s why Soderbergh picked her and what we get is an action heroine, the likes of which we seldom see. Oh sure, there’s Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckensale out there keeping their respective rinse-and-repeat franchises alive, but Carano is nothing like those skintight and skinny stars. Carano comes across as a real person you might meet on a street, not some super model totting double Uzis. Her compact athletic frame comes with a convincing aura, requiring few words, which is a good considering she’s not an actress (in fairness, the same could be said for Jean-Claude Van Damme, when he started out). That’s not to say she’s not good at what she does, it’s just that her inexperience comes across quite noticeably at times. Particularly when snappy dialogue is thrown her way in a one on one conversation, where she seems to be uncomfortable or distracted. So, Carano delivering some flat lines is expected (and that has nothing to do with the altering done to lower her voice in post). After all, her forte is obvious and she’s fantastic.

While it is great to see Soderbergh work with Dobbs again, there’s an ambiguity existing in the screenplay. The motives and objectives of certain characters are somewhat abstracted. Granted it’s clear both director and writer aren’t going for any kind of existential expose, but a little explanation here and there, especially on the part of the antagonists, would’ve driven home the drama, and quite possibly the stakes, all the more.

Soderbergh has more than once cried “retirement” in recent years. I respect whatever decision he makes, but it’s hard to take such a proclamation when he makes movies like this. Last year’s “Contagion” showed the director successfully testing out new ground, trying out the ensemble epidemic genre, and now we have the action revenge flick. Both films are sophisticated and smart, and wonderfully told with intoxication scores. On that note, it’s great to see him re-team with composer David Holmes (“Out of Sight”, a favorite of mine), who provides moody jazz and catchy beats that propel the movie along. If Soderbergh could hold off on the retirement plans for a little longer, I would love to see him take a crack at other genres as well (does he have a horror or western in him?), but until then, I’ll look forward to his upcoming Liberace biopic.

“Haywire” memorably goes from one action set piece to the next with much the same color palette changes that Soderbergh employed in “Traffic”. It shows that here is a director deliberately thinking about everything and for a straight-forward revenge flick, that’s nice to see. It may not be totally original or be the action picture moviegoers are used to (that’s a good thing!), but its brain and brawn are in the right place.

 

 

RATING: ***

 

 

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