"Haywire" dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2012

In that I have worked with first time actors on a number of occasions, I may have some unique insight into Haywire.  Of course, it takes no experience in acting or training actors to recognize that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) star Gina Carano lacks a certain something in her role as Mallory, an ex-Marine, special-ops-style killer, now working for a private contractor.  In short, Mallory is a one-woman Blackwater, and, as it goes in this genre, a seemingly unstoppable force who says things like:  "I don't like loose ends."  But, she is also the daughter of a supportive father, an ex-military man (Bill Paxton) who now spends his days cranking out rather thick works of military genre fiction.   Though her sexual encounters are brief and obviously on her own terms, she is also a lover...and, a fighter.  And, what a fighter.

Ewan McGregor and Gina Carano in Haywire
It's not difficult to understand the light bulb that went off in Soderbergh's head when he put Carano's physical abilities together with the lead role of his former collaborator Lem Dobb's script (they also worked together, so to speak, on 1999's excellent The Limey).  Carano's physicality is nothing less than mesmerizing throughout the brief genre exercise that is Haywire.  Just when I thought Tom Cruise had said the last word on running toward the camera with ferocious intent, along comes Carano.  I would put her physical performance up there in the Toshiro Mifune realm, as her execution of the fight choreography here nearly outshines a generation of those who have preceded her in similar beat-'em-up/shoot-'em-up action flicks, from Ah-nold to Segal.  In fact, it's hard not to feel for that group of expendable 80's action heroes when you watch Haywire, mostly because of what Carano does so well, but also because few of those guys had the benefit of working with directors with as keen a kino-eye as Soderbergh.

Gina Carano and Channing Tatum in Haywire
And, I admire Soderbergh's impulse to take a gamble on an untrained actor, but unfortunately it doesn't work out here.  On the bright side, as I noted in my post on his last genre exercise, the fairly effective take on the "epidemic" film, Contagion, I consider his other gambles in this same arena of green actors to be some of his most enduring work, particularly 2005's Bubble, and the film of his that will probably be most compared to Haywire, 2009's The Girlfriend Experience which starred porn actress Sasha Grey in her non-porn film debut.  Playing Grey and Carano's performances off of one another, we find two women who have performance based careers that surround the acting challenge laid out for them by Soderbergh, both admired for their physical appearance and abilities, but in very different ways.  All in all, I think Soderbergh frames Grey's personality in a way that achieves a kind of naturalism that he never quite gets with Carano.  Granted, Haywire is ultimately less interested in making it's central character believable, but in the places where the film reaches for that it fails terribly, and leaves one wondering if Soderbergh couldn't have had his team of editors take another swipe at the whole affair. 

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience
Although I try to stay away from spewing the criticism of my internal editor, it seems that there is a better film in here that edits around Carano's attempts at creating an emotional inner life for Mallory;  a film that, perhaps, embraces the more experimental rhythms of editing exhibited in The Limey and The Girlfriend Experience.  That may sound harsh, but I'm not blaming Carano for this at all.  After all, she's not an actor, and I would say if you keep score in this movie, nearly every scene of absolutely leaden dialogue involving Carano is balanced by a scene of brilliant kinetic expression (the first scene of the film is a perfect example:  the first half, which contains an acting showdown for the ages between Carano and Channing "Step-Up" Tatum is immediately followed by a piece of fight choreography that obliterates the memory of the awfullness that preceded it).  The physicality of Mallory, whether she's running from a SWAT team or strangling Michael Fassbender with her thighs, is so concisely and fervidly intent that Haywire nearly emerges as a successful experiment based on those scenes alone.  It's one thing for a film maker to capture a well choreographed fight in a way that articulates that fight well to the viewer, but it's another thing altogether to imbue that action with meaning, with consequences, which is what is accomplished in many (though not all) of the action sequences here.  This is made even more striking by the way in which they fail to articulate any meaningful consequences in many (though not all) of the non-action sequences.

Carano and Fassbender in Haywire
Aside from Fassbender's brief turn as an agent sent in to rub Mallory out, the overly seasoned cast that Soderbergh surrounds Carano with is fairly unremarkable here, including Paxton, McGregor, Michael Douglas, and Antonio Banderas.  Once again, I don't blame the actors;  they are only occasionally given anything interesting to do in Haywire, though on the surface it seems wise of Soderbergh to draw attention from the shortcomings of the film with star power.  But, had Soderbergh peopled those roles with lesser known actors, the film may have achieved something unique, as it seems to want to be a stand-out take on the cheap action/hit-man flicks of the 70's and 80's.  In the scenes where David Homes' groovy score jives with the action, this really comes through and Haywire becomes simultaneously a distinctive homage and an engaging thriller.  Had it the finesse and truly successful less-is-more central performance of George Clooney in Anton Corbijn's underrated 2010 film The American, a film that seems as if it could have been made by Soderbergh on a different day, Haywire could have possibly gone in the other direction and been the succinct character study it also seems strive for, especially late in the film when McGregor, as the head of the contract company Carano works for, informs her father that "she's no longer a Marine--she's a murderer."  In this moment, Soderbergh cuts away to Mallory's camouflaged face, as she lies in wait to kick everyone's ass, which we have no doubt she will do, but by that point in the film the hope that some glimmer of significant revelation will suddenly possess her physiognomy is long gone.

Gina Carano in Haywire
(paying homage to Commando, maybe?)
Aside from the enormously effective fight choreography, one of the aspects I admire about Haywire, particularly in contrast to the last film I wrote up with a central female protagonist, David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is the way in which the film handles Mallory not as "a woman assassin," but rather as someone, as McGregor's character advises late in the film, "you shouldn't think of...as a woman." This is nearly the only moment in the film that Soderbergh and Dobbs allow the film to overtly acknowledge Carano in relation to her gender.  Similarly and refreshingly, Mara Rooney's recent portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in GWTDT is in charge of her sexuality, while also being cunning and physically powerful, but the way in which that material is so obsessively focused on the aspect of Salander's victimization is bypassed in Haywire.  I certainly didn't buy that the same Salander that would take her revenge to such extremes would allow the "forced blowjob" scene to even happen, but I don't even want to think of the outcome produced by Mallory were Haywire the type of film that would include such a haplessly inserted scene of rape-rtainment.  In other words, there are no fingers pointing us to the fact of how amazing it is that Mallory is a woman, and no attempts to repeat the easy tropes of her as a seductress or victim.  Carano's character comes off as all the more powerful because of this.  That, and, despite her utter lack of conviction as an actress (maybe, because of it?), there is never any doubt as to the kind of utter fear her character is meant to invoke, an aspect of Mallory that Carano and Soderbergh build in an increasingly convincing manner throughout the film, to the extent that the lack of "gory details" in the finale of the film seems an appropriate conclusion.  As a side note to this, I found Carano's most effective acting moment to be during the spy-oriented threads of the film where she has to use her performance of femininity as her cover.  That it is fairly easy and convincing for Mallory to slip on this persona of feminine submissiveness is perhaps an interesting glimpse into the life of an athlete simultaneously viable as a lethal fighter and sex symbol. 

Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender role-play in Haywire
An actor not having experience is not their fault, and it's also not the thing that will necessarily guarantee a great performance.  This is also true in music, where the mistake is often made of equating a musician who has mastered their technical chops with greatness.  This particularly contentious critical bind would be most commonly exemplified by the incessant search for the most "technically perfect" vocalist on such shows as American Idol and The Voice, which celebrate the bland and the merely competent as the height of this era's musical expression, while the strains of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan continue in their haggard, timeless relevance.  I can only hope that the mind-numbing repetition of celebrity search programs drives this generation in the opposite direction toward what is still powerful about the music that exists outside of the mainstream realm of commercial marketing.  And, yes, I would rather listen to Meg White bang her drum kit with naive and untrained joy any day than listen to Neil Peart once again nail every tic of "Tom Sawyer" (just like he did on the album!).  And, while I'm riding this primitive vs. technical perfection riff, Half-Japanese deserve to have Gina Carano assist them in rubbing out Simon Cowell.

The Meg White Principle does not apply...
...to Gina Carano
Sometimes that young actor who has never stepped foot on a stage in their life turns out to be the most interesting thing about the entire production, unburdened by the curse of thinking like a technical actor, and therefore free to act.  I wish that were true for Carano here, as I see Haywire as a potentially great part of the evolution of the action-hero pics I grew up with.  In this sense, Haywire sits comfortably on the shelf alongside Malbrouk El Mechri's brilliant meta-cinematic ode to Jean-Claude Van Damme, 2008's JCVD.   For all of it's failures, I would much rather see something like Haywire attempt to transform the tropes of it's genre than see Stallone and his gang pretend as if the films they made their fame on are still relevant (yes, The Expendables 2 is coming later this year).

Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD

One last note on this film, which refers to my earlier reference of screenwriter Dobbs:  On a recent edition of the excellent "Slate Spoiler Special" podcast covering Haywire, Slate Culture Editor John Swansburg posits an interesting theory that Haywire could possibly be read as Soderbergh's response to Dobbs, given their rather infamous argument over The Limey on the DVD commentary track.  I like this theory, and it also kind of explains the odd longing you will inevitably have to see a "re-mix" of Haywire as you're watching it.  My final hope for Haywire is that Soderbergh attempts something like this on the DVD release of Haywire, not unlike his re-cutting of Lodge Kerrigan's somewhat overlooked gem, Keane (2004).  I know that with Soderbergh the theory is often "one for the studios...one for me," but, in this case, it would be fascinating to see what the "one for Soderbergh" would look like if this one is, as Swansburg speculates, "for Dobbs."

The Limey

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