Haywire is a film that is so aware of what it is that it never pretends to ever be anything more. That is, Haywire is an action movie. Every scene in the film is a chase, fight, espionage mission, or hideout. The only exceptions are threatening phone calls or escape scenes. It sounds like a formulaic popcorn flick, one that doesn’t need to be made, but the story is so unimportant that Soderbergh chose to hardly have one at all. We don’t really know why Mallory (MMA fighter and American Gladiator Gina Carano) was in Barcelona, we barely know what goes wrong, and as the conspiracy builds, Mallory never takes the time to fill us in about new characters or important past events. In one timeline, she’s enlisting a bystander (our surrogate, who causes her to tell a bit of her story) in escaping from Channing Tatum. In the other, she’s giving us the backstory that we sort of need to make sense of the story but really don’t because there isn’t much story to begin with. It’s a risky choice, but thanks to Soderbergh’s direction, the film comes off as intelligent simply because it refuses to pretend to be about anything other than action and espionage.
Soderbergh works also as cinematographer (credited as “Peter Andrews”) and editor (as “Mary Ann Bernard”), so the fundamentals of the action film are subverted in his independent and distinct visual style, one that is never used in the action films and thrillers that Soderbergh is trying to keep up with. Take, for example, many of the brawls, often shot with static long-takes that put it in opposition to the machine-gun editing and medium close-ups of Hollywood blockbusters. Look also to the chase scenes, particularly at the beginning, where gunshots, pounding footsteps, and collisions with walls and obstacles are silenced in favor of David Holmes’ jazzy score. During the sequence in Barcelona, as Soderbergh smoothly cuts across three different places, distinguishing them with his color filters (as he did in 2000’s Traffic), the action is subservient to the presentation of the action, and it looks like Soderbergh has a great deal more to say about the style of thrillers and action films than about his characters. Flashbacks are steeped in reds and yellows while the escape in the present is watched through a blue window, the camera is still in interiors but on the move in exteriors, and there’s always an acute awareness of deep space. The plot begs you to follow it with promises of action, but Soderbergh asks you to think how presentation informs expectations, using art-house sensibilities that demand the movie be taken seriously.
And for that reason, the lack of exposition and story make Haywire more effective. It’s far easier to take an espionage plot seriously if you do not know what is motivating it; every now and again a new piece of information comes along, but it never seems too outlandish, it never feels like a way to superficially pad length, it just feels like Soderbergh continuing an exercise in genre thrills with art-house sensibilities.
That said, where the film works as anti-action, it also works as pure action. Soderbergh makes remarkable casting decisions, particularly his choosing of an ex-MMA fighter and American Gladiator as an action hero. It’s similar to the use of Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience in that a nonprofessional plays a character very similar to herself, and it again lends an undeniable credibility to the character’s ability to fight her way out of any situation. That the men are largely unintimidating pretty-boys like Michael Fassbender and Antonio Banderas only makes the film more believable in this sense. Fight scenes are believably choreographed, and that Carano does her own stunts ensures that we never doubt what our characters can do. Where so many films have failed in making their action believable before it even gets to the audience, Haywire is a smashing success.
So as the style of the film remains anti-action, the plot itself relies on it.
Unfortunately, despite all its surface brilliances, Haywire never comes off as particularly insightful or bold. It instead finds itself in a catch-22, and it’s place as genre piece and anti-genre discourse assume a binary that never becomes dialectic. The refusal of certain tropes makes their importance to expectations clear while the adherence to others makes the film a bit confused. If this is one of Soderbergh’s thesis films (like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience), it lacks insight. There is nothing to push the film firmly against the genre the way, for example, Altman did with The Long Goodbye or even as Haynes did in Far From Heaven. If it’s a genre-exercise, it is more successful but also far less rewarding. That the film is such a visual treat, aware of what it is and pushing against that in ways that keep it interesting does indeed make it worth watching, but as a whole, Haywire never fully commits itself one way or another, so it remains a strong exercise in style, but it is too quiet when the tough questions come around.