Review: Haywire

Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire has been on my Netflix queue for a while now.  Yesterday I finally got around to watching it, and I have to say it was a real pleasure.

It seems appropriate, in a way, that Haywire sat on my proverbial shelf for so long.  It’s the kind of film that sneaks up on you.  It’s understated, almost small, despite being a continent-hopping spy thriller.

Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a spy-for-hire who is burned by her employers and sets out to find out who betrayed her.  Carano doesn’t exactly have superstar verve, but she’s capable and charming and handles herself beautifully in the elaborate fight sequences.

As far as the violence in this film is concerned, it’s pretty intense.  It’s not graphic, exactly, but the fights are inventive and complex and they just don’t stop.  The choreography is not your average jab-jab-hook; nobody is downed with a single expedient blow. Interestingly, though, Soderbergh is fairly unsentimental about these sequences, documenting the carnage extensively without sensationalizing it too much.  It was sort of refreshing to see a woman kicking ass without being overtly sexualized in exchange (with the obvious exception of a scene where Mallory chokes an opponent between her thighs).  Carano’s career as an MMA fighter means that she performs her on-screen bouts in a workmanlike way — with exquisite agility, but also with total comfort, as if this is something she does as a matter of course.  Which is true, both for Carano and her character Mallory.

In fact, it’s this workmanlike quality that appealed to me most about Haywire.  It’s a very stylish film — in many ways, it’s very much an homage to classic ’70s espionage thrillers (a fact that is particularly evident in David Holmes’s gorgeous, brassy score)  — but it’s also devoid of the showboating of some of Soderbergh’s other films.  This doesn’t have the flashy charm Ocean’s 11, nor is it the high camp of Behind the Candelabra.  Haywire is pared down.  It gets right to business.  There’s not much fussing about backstory or psychological explication.  Very little time is even spent explicating the twists and turns of the plot.  It treats the events of the film in much the same way Mallory herself does, as ordinary occurrences.

You might expect this to undercut the suspense in the film.  After all, if Mallory trusts can handle herself, how can we ever really feel a true sense of risk in all the conflicts she endures?  Well, we don’t, really.  There’s never any doubt that Mallory can handle herself in a fight, or even that she’ll come out on top.  But the film isn’t without tension. That tension, though, arises not from the will-she-or-won’t-she anxiety of the fight, but rather from the acute attention to detail, the way the film forces us to linger in the moment with Mallory.  This is especially true of a couple of long chase sequences, one where Mallory is running down a suspect and another where she is fleeing her attackers.  These scenes refuse to gloss over the action, giving us little respite: for what feels like ages, we watch Mallory run (and run and run) after her quarry; later, she walks down a sidewalk while a man tails her, and we wait and wait for the moment she will be able to break away, and it seems that moment will never come — until, finally, it does.  Where another, slicker film might cut straight to the firefight, fast-forwarding to the “good bits,” so to speak, Haywire holds us in place and refuses to let us look anywhere else.

Haywire may lack some of the explosive panache of bigger studio action films, but I think that works to its advantage.  This film is unassuming and subtle, but nothing short of capable.  They say that’s the mark of true confidence, after all: someone who’s really skilled has no need of bravado or showing off, because their skills will speak for themselves.

Haywire (2011), dir. Steven Soderbergh.  Starring Gina Carano, Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, and Anthony Banderas.  Currently available on Netflix Instant.

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