Perhaps it was fate that Steven Soderbergh's 25th feature film should premiere at the 25th annual AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles this weekend. As AFI President Bob Gazzale pointed out during his introduction of the director at Sunday night's secret screening, Soderbergh has certainly made a huge mark on the American film landscape over the course of his career. He invigorated the independent film movement of the early 90s with sex, lies, and videotape, and is equally adept at making slick studio movies like the Ocean's 11 series or blazing his own trail with boundary-pushing cinema like The Girlfriend Experience or his two-part Che Guevara biopic. With his newest film, Haywire, the prolific director brings his signature style to an unfamiliar arena: the action/spy genre.
Since Soderbergh decided to build a film entirely around her, it's only fair to begin with discussion of Gina Carano, the MMA fighter-turned-actress who plays the lead in the film. Haywire is Carano's first acting gig, and while I admire her director's ballsiness to have an unknown lead a multi-million dollar film like this, Carano is ill-equipped to handle the pressure. She's serviceable, but doesn't ever display a personality for the audience to latch onto; it appears as if she doesn't care whether she lives or dies, so why should we? The audience has to be able to find an emotional connection to this character for the story to operate as intended, and Carano's performance didn't do that for me. She totally kicks ass in the action sequences - more on that in a minute - but dramatically, she was flat and impersonal.
The film's spectacular introduction takes place in a small diner in upstate New York: a fight breaks out between secret agent Mallory Kane (Carano) and her ex co-worker Henry (Channing Tatum). A random kid (Michael Angarano) steps in to intervene on Mallory's behalf, and they escape, using the kid's car to get away. During the drive, Mallory explains and the movie employs flashbacks to reveal the story: a mission in Barcelona went south, so she's teamed with a new agent (Michael Fassbender) in Dublin. Things go further south, and Mallory takes it upon herself to find out who set her up and why, with the bureaucracy's (Michael Douglas and Ewan McGregor) motivations becoming increasingly murky thanks to their ties to a shady political type (Antonio Banderas). Catching back up to the current timeline, Mallory spends the rest of the movie working out and executing her plan to find the truth through any means necessary: which, thankfully for action fans, means kicking some serious ass along the way.
The story, as you can probably tell, is fairly straightforward. But it's not as much about the plot as the style, which is 100% Soderbergh in every way. Lighting, mood, tone, visuals - he applies his trademark to this genre the same as he did with the world virus genre earlier this year in Contagion, and the effect is similar here. Neither film would be considered the best in its respective genre, but there's something comforting in the knowledge of having a Soderbergh effort mixed in with the blandness of many other attempts. The director also continues his great collaboration with composers who create fantastic pieces that perfectly match the vibe of his films. In Haywire, David Holmes' bossa nova score is full of horns and brass - it's big band with an attitude. There are extended sequences in the film that are dialogue-free and rely on the score and the occasional muted sound effect to propel the story (a wise filmmaking decision, considering the limitations of the lead actress).
The action is often shot in long takes and brutally close confinement, leaving the actors to perform their own fights mostly without the aid of stuntmen. There are many times it appears as if they are actually being violently hit in the face, proof of the excellent Bourne-esque fight choreography. It's in these moments, as one may imagine, that Carano's true talent is demonstrated. She's quick, efficient, and powerful, and her deft movements and handsome beauty make it easy to understand Soderbergh's desire to set her as the star of her own action film.
Haywire is a departure from more heady subject matter for the director, but I believe it's a justified jaunt into unfamiliar territory. Gina Carano's star power is yet to be measured, but even if she isn't the most effective actress, it's still a pleasure to watch a director with so much craftsmanship put these pieces together to add to the genre. Just don't count on a sequel. Until next time...