It’s ironic that a film called Haywire would in fact be anything but unruly, but then, Steven Soderbergh has never been one to lose control. The groove he’s settled into is largely defined by techno-infused jazz, overcranked lights, and static shots of people holding as still as possible — the effect is not unlike being in a very odd zoo — and he brings that same air of total composure to his latest work. And that’s the problem. The plot of Haywire is about as stripped-down and straightforward as action-thrillers get, yet the experience of watching it is like watching a diligent student work his way through a set of basic math problems. Everything comes out where it’s supposed to, but the execution is so workmanlike, dull, and uninspired that there’s little joy in the process. I found myself curious on a purely logistical, cross-the-Ts level about what would happen, but thoroughly unengaged on an emotional one. Soderbergh seems to have forgotten (or not bothered to care) that you need the head and the heart to make a good film, yet here he seemed only to want me to enjoy the architecture, the idea, of a movie without being able to give myself over to it. I realize that such a dismissal sounds cold and analytical, but such is the film itself for each of its curious and often stultifying 90ish minutes. I found myself quite liking several moments and ideas in the film, yet all I can think about it is: I didn’t hate it. Such a backhanded compliment is usually served sarcastically, meant to imply either pleasant surprise or grudging acceptance, but here I mean it just as it reads. I did not hate the movie, yet I am unable to access any greater reaction, positive or negative. It’s too slippery to feel anything else.
The bright spot in the film is the presence of Gina Carano, an MMA fighter whose physical energy and skills in the Octagon were what inspired Soderbergh to make the film in the first place. She’s the focus here, and her prowess as a combatant allows for some of the most realistic, impressive fight scenes in a long time. Carano plays Mallory Kane, a mercenary contracted to rescue a kidnapped scientist (Anthony Brandon Wong) from a Barcelona crime lord with the assistance of a squad that includes another young operative named Aaron (Channing Tatum). Mallory’s a human weapon, a living tool for assassination, and she finds herself betrayed by a number of shady contacts and bosses in the aftermath of the Barcelona deal, which in turn leads to a series of increasingly impressive fights to the death (or at least the disabling) as she winds up in a series of jobs that leave her unsure of who to trust. Carano is the most believable female action hero in a long time, bringing a heft to the role that highlights just how laughable some of the other choices have been. She stands 5’8” with just over 140 lbs of defined muscle; this is not Keira Knightley in a tank top, waving an Uzi. Soderbergh also strips the fight scenes of any background music, and he refuses to dress up the blows with the meaty smacks that define most action movies, settling instead for the softer thuds of gut punches and sleeper holds. The staging also emphasizes longer takes and blows that actually take place on camera, making for some of the most effective and believable combat possible within the heightened confines of the genre. Taken on their own, though, in choppy little increments, the fight scenes are — well, not exactly riveting, but certainly interesting. Soderbergh never quite works up enough energy or characterization to make what happens riveting in the long run. Rather, each successive bout feels more like a formal demonstration from someone who’s learned a new parlor trick, and who is determined to make you watch it repeatedly no matter your level of enthusiasm.
In terms of performance, Carano succeeds by being allowed to focus her time and energy into moving fluidly through her environment and fighting her way out of it. Also, while she’s not called upon to move through any great emotional range — Lem Dobbs’ script moves her through some predictable action movie beats, including a half-hearted attempt at a broken heart —she hits her internal marks with more believability than you might expect from a pro fighter. (Compare her to, say, John Cena, and you realize just how much focus and charisma she actually has.) She’s surrounded by an impressive crew of men who do their best to halt or kill her, including Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and a sketchy Antonio Banderas who actually strokes his beard while plotting evil schemes, but they’re all support. Carano’s the real star, and she brings the perfect tone of predatory nuance to the role. She’s not just good for an athlete; she’s a good performer, period.
The bulk of the film revolves around Mallory’s attempt to figure out just who double-crossed her and why. The globe-hopping plot is presented with Soderbergh’s regular touches — thin typefaces for title cards, different palettes for each location, etc. — but each step forward seems to require more effort. For all its potential sizzle and energy, though, the film is remarkably slack in its pacing, running 93 minutes but feeling half as long again thanks to Soderbergh’s total focus on the micro at the expense of the macro. You know, objectively, that an end is coming, but the film seems unsure of what to do about it. Basically, any given moment looks good and feels fine, and the surrounding five minutes would probably make you feel like you were watching a film. But actually watched all the way through, Haywire is a stunningly cold and rote exercise. You can’t really hate it, but then, you can’t do much else with it, either.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.