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Non-Review Review: Haywire

Steven Soderbergh is an interesting film maker. Even when his films don’t really come together as well as one might hope, you can’t help but admire some of his bold ambition. Contagion was probably one of the boldest major releases of last year, and it was always fascinating even when it was just short of brilliance. Haywire falls into a similar trap, with some nice ideas, some great scenes, but nothing that really melds into a particularly compelling film. Indeed, Soderbergh’s spy thriller is messy, undoubted as the director intended – but it doesn’t seem like a highly-energised kinetic mess so much as poorly-plotted and muddled mess. The result is a film that is occasionally invigorating, but also quite infuriating.

On top of it...

I admire what Soderbergh is trying to do here. In fact, it seems like a fairly open challenge to the film makers working in the spy thriller genre. After Casino Royale touted the return of a “raw” Bond, it seemed that espionage thrillers were increasingly skewing towards the cynical and pseudo-realistic portrayal of the world of intelligence. Soderbergh evidently wasn’t impressed with this attempt to re-engineer the spy thriller. “You think Daniel Craig is raw?” he seems to goad us, “Wait until you get a load of this.”

After all, despite their lack of gadgets and one-liners, films like The Bourne Identityare still highly stylish spyfare. There’s the same idealism beneath the surface, the same old plots, the same old betrayals. Directors like Paul Greengrass and Martin Campbell just bring a different type of style to these films, giving us outlandish stunts like Bond’s parkour chase or Jason Bourne riding a body down the centre of a stairwell. Soderbergh’s Haywire is what you get when you completely strip the spy action thriller of all its trappings. Casino Royale didn’t strip down Bond so much as give him a paint job. Here, Soderbergh isn’t afraid to dent the bodywork.

Need a break?

All the choices in the film seem to enforce this. While Soderbergh has composer David Holmes provide a sophisticated jazz beat to underscore the most graceful moments in the film, his fight sequences are silent save for the sound of laboured breathing and bones snapping. While most thrillers like this begin with a brutal betrayal, Soderbergh knows that it’s more cynical to ask who isn’t involved in the attempted assassination of his secret agent than who is. This conspiracy isn’t so much a conspiracy as an establishment, after all.

While observing the trappings of the genre, Soderbergh does offer us a more realistic take on them. Haywire is very much a global spy thriller, set as far afield as Dublin and Barcelona. However, these aren’t the exotic travelogues of Ian Fleming’s man of mystery – with Fleming often using Bond’s trips around the world as a symbol of status and class. Instead, Haywire occupies a more mundane are realistic world. Barcelona is mostly sidestreets and shady apartment buildings. Dublin is a drab grey, where our heroine can evade police detection by posing as a junkie wearing a hoodie adorned with the name of the nation’s oldest college.

Wet work...

Even a confrontation on a beach seems like a direct challenge to the Bond films. After all, we all remember those iconic beach sequences. One could argue that the scene of Ursula Andress emerging from the water in her trademark bikini elevated Dr. No from a conventional thriller to a worldwide sensation. When Martin Campbell was charged with reinventing the franchise, he kept the sexuality, albeit with a wry sense of humour. Turning the scene on its head, Campbell turned Bond and his tiny speedos into the sex object emerging from the water. Soderberg avoids any sexuality to his beach sequence – his heroine keeps her clothes on, and it provides the scene of a reasonably brutal beatdown.

Of course, the film’s most direct challenge to the legacy of Bond, and of the stylish spy thriller, comes in the form of a gentleman assassin, played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender has a handful of scenes, but he still emerges as one of the more well-formed characters in the jumbled screenplay, if only because he’s playing off a well-known archetype. Fassbender adopts a distinctly British accent. He looks sharp in a suit. He even affects a bit of faux courtesy, almost balking at the idea of killing a woman. (“I’ve never done a woman before,” he confesses, in a line laced with subtext.) However, despite his debonair exterior, this suave suited gentleman is just a thug, a blunt instrument. In one of the film’s better moments, in the heat of a confrontation, the facade slips and his accent disappears – all of a sudden Fassbender’s not playing the sophisticated secret agent, but the brutal inner-city thug.

She'll get right bonnet...

Even the casting of the lead, with Soderbergh opting for fighter Gina Carano for the role of double-crossed agent. It’s a shrewd attempt to defy the stereotypes of these sorts of films, and a move I respect on many levels. Soderberg doesn’t want what his lead character refers to as “eye candy”, and doesn’t want to fall into the spy thriller stereotype of the classically beautiful damsel – instead opting for an actress who could realistically pull off those sorts of stunts and activities. It’s a massive gambit to base a movie around Carano (though he does cushion her by surrounding her with veteran performers), and I admire Soderbergh for the courage of his convictions.

However, it’s at this point that the film’s strengths begin to overlap with its weakness. Carano isn’t an actor, and she certainly isn’t a dramatic heavyweight. The impressive supporting cast works well, but the movie rests on Carano’s charisma and persona. She isn’t terrible, by any means, but she can’t carry an entire film. Indeed, there’s a scene where she curses a fleeing bad guy that is especially cringe-inducing. “You better run!” she shouts into the wilderness, in a short moment that probably should have been cut from the finished product.

The narrative goes backwards and forwards...

Similarly, Soderbergh’s clear cynicism about the conventional spy film narrative means that his own spy film is kinda dull. He structures the story in a non-linear fashion, so we jump back and forth between particular sequences and moments. These moments almost all work better on their own than in the context of an actual movie. However, the plot that these sequences serve is remarkably disappointing. Of course there’s no grand scheme at play here, only petty greed and maybe a little personal and professional jealousy. “This is about money!” the agent’s double-crossing boss insists, and it mostly is. Money is a compelling motivation. It makes sense. People like money, and do bad things to get it.

However, Soderbergh reveals this plot point early on, and then insists on elaborate flashbacks explaining how each of the pieces fits into the chessboard. These ultimately feel quite disappointing, because we could intuit these revelations fairly logically. Soderbergh’s whole point seems to be that people like this aren’t motivated by zany schemes or crazy plots, but predictable greed, and it backfires a bit. Because although they make for solid character motivations, it seems a bit pointless to devote so much exposition to it, and to build the plot towards it. I know it’s just one more layer of Soderbergh’s attempt to pick apart the genre, but it doesn’t serve the movie especially well. It’s like an anti-twist, another in Soderbergh’s arsenal of defied spy movie clichés, which wouldn’t be a problem if Soderbergh didn’t construct the movie around it.

She's a machine gun...

Indeed, the movie’s arbitrary ending will probably be divisive. I’m not going to spoil it, but I will concede that it exists. It feels remarkably unsatisfactory, if only because a lot of the ideas percolating in the background are more fascinating than the central plotline. We never discover, for example, how our secret agent’s relationship with the government goes. (Though there are a number of guesses that can hazarded.) I suppose Soderbergh wanted to deny us the sense of closure that most of these movies end with – suggesting that, despite his lead character’s stated dislike of them, it’s impossible to tidy up all the “loose ends.”

It’s frustrating because these points are fairly significant – they’re core to the movie. It’s disappointing, because several of Soderbergh’s sequences work so well. I especially like the time we spend in the hotel room with two spies before they embark on a mission. There’s so much mistrust and guarded interpersonal interaction perfectly captured by Soderbergh – it illustrates exactly how cold these people are, and how difficult it must be to work in a profession surrounded by them. That and the nice touch of our secret agent removing her cumbersome heals before an inevitable and brutal smackdown. It’s little touches like these that really work, and make me wish the movie was so much stronger than it ended up being.

Sight for sore eyes...

Haywire is an interesting film, and I’d be lying if I didn’t concede I wasn’t a bit disappointed. On the other hand, it’s hard not to admire Soderbergh’s ambition and the skill with which he so thoroughly strips down the classic “rogue agent” movie plot. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to put a movie together when the director spends so much time taking it apart.

3 Responses

  1. I’m excited to see Haywire, mainly because it’s nice to see a strong female lead in the Bourne niche in a film that isn’t Columbiana. I think having read your piece on the geography of the film I’ll probably appreciate it more than I might have, so thanks for that. I just hope it doesn’t colour my rating unfairly 🙂 Thanks for this Darren!

  2. Haywire was another Soderbergh piece of shhhhhh-abby work: The guy spends all his budget on a few big-name actors and that’s his contribution to film making. Haywire is the result of mediocre writing, some of the worst dialog ever, TERRIBLE acting by Carano (seriously, Groucho Marx is more subtle than her overacting), and ruined action scenes. Since when can you throw coffee at someone’s face from two feet away and they don’t even get wet? Let alone the fact that Gina gets her ass thoroughly kicked by a fairly athletic man twice her size and she doesn’t even wince, struggle with her breath, or have a single lump on her face? The worst for me, as a woman, is that she gets pummelled and doesn’t even fight back in the first scene until some random customer holds the bad guy, and only THEN does she start to fight. Also, what’s up with the lighting? Did some sophomore film student do it? Seriously, Soderbergh, you’re mediocrity personalified and you stand for everything I hate about pompous pricks with lots of money and no talent.

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