Tuesday, January 24, 2012

HAYWIRE: Brutal and Bone-Crunching


Steven Soderbergh is a hard director to love, but an easy one to be intrigued by. Few if any directors relish experimentation as much as him - he's a guy who is always pushing boundaries, testing his own creative limits, and challenging himself to explore different genres and styles. You never quite know what you're going to get with Soderbergh, and that's to his credit - but it also means that, sometimes, his films feel like test tube concoctions rather than fully-formed movies. HAYWIRE is a really cool, interesting action-flick, though I think it does suffer a little from being a sort of offbeat experiment.

As the story goes, Soderbergh saw female MMA fighter Gina Carano in action, and thought she'd be perfect as an action star to build a movie around. And as it turns out, Soderbergh's instincts were 100% right on that front - Carano kicks ass and takes names in Haywire. Her acting is decent, but she has the kind of screen presence and charisma that all the great action stars have. And man, when she puts a beating on someone, the results are realistic, brutal, and positively bone-crunching. After seeing Haywire, I am 100% ready and willing to see Carano in more action roles - and I'd love to see her mix it up with some of her peers (male and female), from Sly Stallone to Jason Statham to Zoe Saldana.

Now the thing with Haywire is that, well, you might expect it to be a balls-to-the-wall style throwdown. But it isn't. It's actually a hyper-stylized throwback of sorts to 70's and 80's-era B-movies. It's a far cry from a sleek action-thriller like Salt, a comic book actioner like Underworld, or a Euro-style woman-on-a-mission movie like Colombiana. Instead, it's like a modern-day version of Foxy Brown or other such proto-grindhouse action cinema. In between the action, there's a lot of convoluted dialogue and plot setup. The movie feels stark, bare-bones - with a straightforward, unflashy cinematic style - the kind of thing that Tarantino paid homage to when he did Deathproof.

This style works well for Haywire in the sense that the fight scenes - shot straight-on without modern conventions like shaky-cam or rapid cuts - feel all the more brutal and wince-inducing. It also makes for some riveting chase scenes, which are allowed to run uninterrupted without unnecessary cuts or flashiness. At the same time, it's admittedly a big jarring to see a movie like this - one that delivers such satisfying, kickass action - deliver said action so sparingly, amidst some very slow bouts of exposition and stripped-down, bare-bones cinematography.

But if you can get past all that, and sit back, and allow yourself to get caught up in Haywire's B-movie trappings, you'll be in for a really cool ride. Some other recent movies (say, Tinker Tailor) frustrated me with their hard-to-penetrate plotlines. But I think the story in Haywire is sort of secondary. It's more about establishing a mood of intrigue and and motive of revenge. Despite some convoluted ins and outs and a multitude of characters woven into the narrative, the basic plotline of Haywire is fairly simple: Carano's character, Mallory - a spy-for-hire - has been set up to take a fall for her employer after a botched job. Mallory is a loose end, and therefore, she's now a target. It may occasionally be tough to figure out how all the various players fit into the story ... but one thing is clear: this is a story about Mallory's revenge.

One thing Sodenbergh does is that he surrounds Carano with a number of highly-regarded actors to play off of. While Carano does the bulk of the ass-kicking, most of the acting load is carried by the likes of Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglass, Bill Paxton, the omnipresent Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderes (sporting a super-badass beard) and, to a lesser extent, Channing Tatum. It's an interesting strategy - surround this amateur actress with a cast of experienced and award-winning actors. And it mostly pays off, as everyone does a nice job of giving the movie some added gravitas and dramatic heft. That said, you do sort of wish that Carano had some real physical equals to play off of. I mean, do you want a Bruce Lee movie where he's teamed with Sir Laurence Olivier? The result is a movie that has pretty jarring transitions between its more dramatic, dialogue-heavy scenes and its action scenes. Only Fassbender among the cast gets to do some solid acting as well as ass-kicking, and his appearance in the movie is sadly a fairly brief one.

On one level, there's a degree of frustration that HAYWIRE isn't an over the top, Kill Bill-style cinematic action tour de force, or even an Expendables-style frag-'em-up. With someone as awesome and as legit deadly as Carano, that's sort of what you want. And yet, there is a very interesting, quasi-arthouse style at play in Haywire that pulsates with retro-grindhouse-cool. And it's at its best when it embraces the absurdity of it all and just gets a little crazy. When it deliberately tries to be drab, Haywire can get a bit boring. But when it dares to be as badass as it can be - as in the highly entertaining final encounter between Carano and McGregor - Haywire is a stylistically-risky but still-satisfying action pic.

My Grade: B+

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