Last year Hanna set a weird kind of precedent for the future of action films. That film showed that an action movie could star a woman (a young girl even) and still be an insanely engaging and powerful piece of entertainment divorced from gender politics. Not only did it prove that a female-centric action picture could work without making a big deal out of its protagonist’s gender, but it proved that auteur, historically prestige/award-oriented directors could more than prove their mettle in terms of rollicking action fare. Joe Wright went from period pieces to continent-spanning revenge flick, and now Steven Soderbergh has followed suit, going from world-spanning disease thriller to world-spanning revenge flick.
In doing so he created you, Haywire, and while you might not be on the same near-perfect level as Hanna, you more than equip yourself in terms of being a fun, stylish story of vengeance.
I have to admit, though, that I came to you with low expectations. For one thing, the name Haywire just evokes all kinds of low-grade action movie hokum. Then there was that fact that I just didn’t know much about you. My exposure to your marketing was limited, and while I trust Soderbergh to make films to a high technical standard, I also know that he’s not above reproach. After all, I didn’t like Contagion all that much. Sure, it was well made, but it was lacking the heart, the empathetic connection that could have elevated it.
You, meanwhile, have a lot aligned in your favor. Mallory (played astoundingly well by professional fighter Gina Carano) is a compelling character. When we see her at first she is sitting placidly in a diner in upstate New York, only her eyes giving away her power. She has the sharp, contoured gaze of a predator. In every situation, no matter the danger or obstacle, those dark eyes shine with a preternatural hunger. When an unexpected former partner (Channing Tatum) shows up to greet her, things quickly take a turn for the worst, leading to an extended flashback that will fill us in on the story so far, and set the stage for a final suite of vengeance that is to follow.
This manner of setting up the story serves the dual purposes of letting an audience drop immediately into action, at the same time that it creates and air of disorientation and mystery. What happened to Mallory? What is the story behind her strained relationship with her employer, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor)? Still, by the time all the threads are resolved and the answers supposedly given, questions will remain. There is a thinness to your narrative thrust (she wants vengeance/answers) and yet somehow you still manage to be overly complicated.
Everyone talks in a tradecraft shorthand that allows for a feeling of authenticity and also keeps the audience on their toes, engaged and alert. However, the obscurity and opacity of their conversations only further to muddy the narrative waters. Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas co-star as shady agents of unknown government affiliation, and their place in the plot is murky at best. Then again, considering the deceptively complex nature of your plot, its hard to imagine how their relation to the proceedings could have been explained but by a massive exposition dump that would have killed your pace.
Besides, you are not a movie of plot any more than Hanna was. That film, though, traded in simplicity of story and empathetic character connection. You strive for complexity, but bury it under a glimmering facade of stylish cool and remove. Between your horn-heavy, jazzy soundtrack and the saturated honey-tones of your lighting, there’s a lot to love here outside of the plot. Every action set piece is constructed with care and precision, and the fight scenes are rough, brutal, and subtly inventive. There’s not a lick of outlandish, reality bending nonsense here. No pointlessly choreographed over elaborations punctuated by slapstick sound effects. Rather, we see highly skilled, rigidly trained professionals battering each other into submission with a series of muted, economically executed blows. Each fight is just slightly stylized, slightly exaggerated, but only enough to disarm one’s expectations, not enough to break the reality of your story.
On top of this aurally, aesthetically, and viscerally triumphant trinity, there is the simple pleasure of your direction. Some scenes take place completely free of music, the sound of shattering glass and colliding bodies filling the void left by the stunned silence of any observer. Other scenes go the opposite direction, with music talking over, drowning out the sounds of violence.
Thinking back on all of the good things about you, it makes me wish that your plot had been invested with a little more care in its execution, and your characters given a little more time to grow as people. While I do appreciate the vagueness of the details and their way of only slowly emerging from the darkness, I can’t help but feel that this smokescreen of plot intrigue and emotional disconnection makes every eventual revelation less resonant than it should have been. In Hanna we knew where everyone stood, and we liked and detested characters with a sense of clarity that added impact to their fights. Your failure to establish similarly grounded allegiances hobbles you slightly.
Still, it should be obvious that in spite of this, I still found you a compelling and worthy film. Style over substance can work if style is bold enough to make you long for more and there is at least a suggestion of a thoughtful, deeper narrative.
You caught me off guard and slammed me against a wall, shattering my preconceptions and further cemented my opinion that the age of the auteur action film should not only be welcomed, but heralded and encouraged.
Impressed and intrigued,
Brian J. Roan