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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: Haywire (2012)

* * *

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender

When Steven Soderbergh announced last year that he planned to retire after making three more films (which, for most directors, would mean retiring in 6 to 10 years, but for Soderbergh would mean retirement within, like, a year), it was shocking but, at the same time, made a certain amount of sense. It's shocking because he's still in his prime and he's such a consistently interesting and excellent filmmaker, but it makes sense because there are few achievements he has left to meet. He has an Oscar, has proved to be ambitious in both large-scale (the Che films) and smaller scale films, has had films that were huge commercial successes, and has made personal, experimental indies, and he's been ridiculously prolific (24 films in 23 years). Soderbergh is an artist with nothing left to prove, which is why he can turn his attention to making delightful genre pictures like Haywire without having to worry that his legacy will in any way be tarnished because he's not making "important" movies.

Haywire begins in medias res with the arrival of Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) at a diner in upstate New York. She's joined soon after by Aaron (Channing Tatum), with whom she engages in a knock down, drag out fight (the first of several in the film) before escaping with Scott (Michael Angarano), another patron who then becomes the audience's surrogate as Mallory relates her story to him. It begins in Barcelona, where Mallory, who works for company run by her ex-boyfriend, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), is sent to rescue a hostage and deliver him to the government's Spanish contact, Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas). Aaron is part of the team as well and though things don't go completely according to plan, they do ultimately succeed. Returning home, Mallory is immediately given another assignment by Kenneth, this one taking her to Ireland to pose as the wife of Paul (Michael Fassbender), an MI6 agent. Once there Mallory finds the Barcelona hostage murdered and realizes that she's been set up. A wanted woman, Mallory is forced to go on the run while also trying to unravel the conspiracy around her.

Mallory realizes fairly quickly that Kenneth is the mastermind. Aside from personal conflict arising from Mallory having dumped him, Kenneth also has professional reasons for wanting Mallory out of the way. She's made it clear that she intends to defect from his agency and her reputation being what it is, he knows that many of his key clients would follow her to wherever she went next. Knowing what she does, Mallory sets out to turn the tables and make Kenneth (and his allies) regret coming after her. With a little help from a government contact (Michael Douglas) and an almost inhuman ability to not be killed, Mallory just keeps going and going, escaping one impossible predicament after another until she finally gets to have the showdown she wants and the answers she needs.

The plot of Haywire, like so many films of its kind, is at once convoluted and secondary. The plot is simply the frame that showcases the stylish and well-constructed action sequences, sequences which unfold with the sort of realism that you don't see a lot of in films nowadays because you can actually see what's going on. Quick cuts, incomprehensible action, and CGI overload are the standard for action films now, but Haywire actually lets you follow the individual steps of the action so that you can appreciate the artistry and skill that actually goes into film combat. Each action sequence is better than the last as the film propels itself towards its climax, twisting and turning the plot but ultimately delivering a cleanly rendered product. It's obvious from watching the film that Soderbergh took a lot of care and put a lot of thought into staging each sequence, which is why it feels more fulfilling than a lot of action fare.

With such finely crafted technical aspects, and a great supporting cast, it's understandable why Soderbergh would take a chance on an unknown property like Carano in the lead. Primarily known as an MMA fighter, Carano really brings it in the fight scenes and though her range is somewhat limited, Soderbergh tailors Haywire to her strengths. She doesn't quite have the charisma of some of her more seasoned co-stars, but she is believable as a special agent/ass-kicking-machine which is fairly rare in the subgenre of the female-centered action picture.

Haywire is far from Soderbergh's best or most ambitious film, but it's a pretty great example of a genre picture done right. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it sets a new standard for the genre, but it's definitely an action movie well worth seeing.

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