Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

There’s an interesting subversive quality to Haywire that commanded my interest from its first act. Perhaps it’s appealing in the way Steven Soderbergh takes the agreed upon formula of action films ala James Bond and inverts the gender dynamic – it’s the globetrotting female surrounded by handsome men. Or perhaps its Soderbergh’s nonchalant approach to the narrative intricacies of typical action film that drew me in – even the film’s characters seem lost in the web they’ve weaved. Or maybe it’s just the simple ways Soderbergh deploys his actions set-pieces that I found most alluring. Even the somewhat popularized reverse driving chase sequence is topped off with a hilariously out-of-nowhere sight gag that etched a smile on my face. It’s undoubtedly a combination of all these aspects that makes Haywire a compelling piece of pulp filmmaking, presenting itself as an interesting companion piece to Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale and drawing inspiration from recent films like The American and Drive.

As Mallory Kane, retired MMA fighter Gina Carano becomes the focus of Soderbergh’s obsessive gaze. Much like with Sasha Gray’s stunt casting in The Girlfriend Experience, Carano’s role is given an added dimension given her history, even if her performance rarely exceeds passable. But what becomes remarkably clear from the onset of the picture is Soderbergh’s rejection of gender. The canvas in which Soderbergh is operating under is that physically, there are no boundaries. Ewan McGregor’s character notes not to “think of her as a woman” as a way of removing gender from the equation. This little note is humorously placed near Haywire’s conclusion, almost immediately after all the violence upon Kane’s character has wrapped up.

Soderbergh’s ability to avoid a misogynistic tone throughout is something of a minor miracle, given that the violence against Carano seems to ramp in brutality.  Carano takes punches to the face, much to the shock of the audience I saw the film with, and returns punches with just as much ferocity. Each and every single character are unsexed – a compelling move of gender neutralization that, at the very least, makes every single fight scene an air of anxiety and relentless tension.

Soderbergh’s direction is as sharp as usual. Working in this sort of genre allows him to exercise his formal technique while winking at the audience from time to time. It’s particularly evident in the film’s “Barcelona” job, wherein Soderbergh integrates black-and-white still photography, David Holmes’ jazzy score, and funny visual cues (a post-it labeled “Bad Guy No. 1” is seen in passing) into a seamless montage. It’s all topped off with an extended chase sequence through the streets, displaying Soderbergh’s masterful control of tension through simple framing and extended scenes.

Lem Dobbs scripting is mostly solid, particularly if analyzed as a sort of critique on globetrotting action cinema. I wasn’t too keen on the film’s initial framing device, which seems to be used as a form of comic relief more than anything. But it’s rarely an intrusive aspect of the film. Haywire is largely dependent on the Soderbergh’s raw formal design and Carano’s raw… brutality. It’s a splendid marriage.

Rating: 9/10