Thursday, January 26, 2012

Man on Film: Haywire

Looking at Steven Soderbergh's curriculum vitae, one thing is certain: He is not a director who can be pigeonholed. More so than most high-profile directors, Soderbergh is willing to do virtually anything that he feels compelled to do, be it cast a hard-core porn star (a very good one, at that), remake a Rat Pack bomb, or release a movie both theatrically and on DVD on the same day. While such a propensity for taking risks can be exhilarating, sometimes he does misfire.

While Haywire doesn't quite misfire, it is far from a perfect film.

Perhaps most importantly, Haywire is a bit light on action for an action film. Soderbergh went and got himself a real-life action star to be his heroine in the form of MMA star Gina Carano. When her very palpable skill set is put to the test, she passes with flying colors. Unfortunately, such an asset, such a legitimate ass-kicking lady had her primary skill-set underutilized. That's not to say she doesn't excel at these scenes. The culmination of the chase scene through Barcelona gives us a glimpse at her prowess. The magnificent fight scene with Michael Fassbender* is really a showstopper. It's visceral. It utilizes her Muay Thai background. It feels authentic.

*In retrospect, isn't it insane that Soderbergh had to fight the studio to let him cast Fassbender? Granted, this was two years ago, but still, if ever there were an instance in which a larger issue in Hollywood were  inarguably elucidated by a singular incident, it is here. This certainly gives one pause when thinking about how many projects have theoretically been derailed by studio/network casting tampering.

There are just too many long gaps in which she isn't getting to do her thing. In this regard, Haywire is a bit reminiscent of Faster, a hard-R action film in which there is this physical specimen [Dwayne Johnson in the case of Faster] that you want unleashed on the film yet the flashes are too few and too far between. Honestly, this is probably the first time the movie-going public has gotten a chance to see a female action star who can really kick ass. Perhaps it's greedy, but without knowing what the future holds, one can't help but want a balls-to-the-wall action flick starring the fetching Carano.

Normally, I'd probably cut Soderbergh a little slack here, as there is probably just enough action to quench one's thirst, but there are faults that run past this.

For starters, the score completely misses its mark. There are far too many scenes where the score accompanying the action recalls themes from the Ocean's movies. In what is essentially a film in which the protagonist is going up against a larger conspiracy against her, the score is more apropos of one for a caper flick.

The roll out of the development of the plot is a little plodding, and the plot is frankly not as labyrinthine as it probably should be since it is ultimately a conspiracy-driven action film. There is also the problem wherein the fact that she has been betrayed/wronged is given away at the very beginning, the betrayal is then elucidated via flashback for roughly half the film, and then the film picks up in the present and works its way to its conclusion. This construction of the narrative lends itself to much less suspense than simply allowing the events to take their course in their natural progression. I'm all for inventive/non-conventional narrative structure, but it needs to be implemented in a way that actually enhances the film, which does not happen here.

If one were gauging how I felt about the film by what has been written thus far, one would conclude that my reaction was a negative one. That wouldn't be entirely correct. There is a lot to like.

To start with, there is Gina Carano. While her acting was a bit raw, she was passable--especially for a non-actor--and going forward it isn't hard to imagine her becoming slightly more natural with the camera fixed on her. For every note that was just a bit off, there was a redeeming moment. Her presence in the action scenes separates her from everyone who has come before her. She also has this thing that she does when she bites the right side of her lower lip that is insanely alluring; and despite a scar on the underside of her chin, there is very little about her that screams former prize-fighter, at least in the unflattering sense.

While Soderbergh has made some questionable decisions with Haywire, it looks as good as one would expect, especially in Dublin, where the Irish gloom is captured vividly. The scenes in snow-covered Upstate New York with Michael Angarano and Channing Tatum* look great as well.

*Is it weird that I'm starting to dislike him less? I mean I still can't picture him as a Roman sentry or whatever the hell he was in The Eagle, but he might have been the only good non-Jennifer Connelly part of The Dilemma

The casting was pretty great as well, with the aforementioned slew of actors joining up with Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Mathieu Kassovitz, Michael Douglas, and Ewan McGregor to flesh out a formidable cast, effectively picking up the slack that having a novice front and center can lead to.

Haywire is far from a perfect action film, but its imperfections are not so dire as to render the film less than enjoyable. It has enough going for it to have it be a net-plus even with its weaknesses.

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