Movie Review: "HAYWIRE"
Published: Friday, January 20, 2012
Updated: Sunday, January 22, 2012 14:01
If there is any justice in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh's "HAYWIRE" will serve as a wake-up call to every action filmmaker around. With his first entry into the genre he has crafted the freshest combat film America has seen in ages; the first in god-knows-how-long that can compete with similar films from Asian countries, particularly the hand-to-hand fighting films of China and Hong Kong. It won't be celebrated for its challenging intellect, or for virtuoso acting (even if the character work is perfect.) Rather, this is cinema at its most primal: pure, fast, and violent, "HAYWIRE" is a visual sucker punch.
And 90% of that is thanks to lead actress/bad-ass-mother-fucking-professional-cage-fighter Gina Carano's performance as Mallory Kane. I'm not going to lie and say she's a great actress; but she doesn't need to be. Soderbergh plays to her strengths, casting her as a lone "private contractor" (unaffiliated mercenary) whose fucked over by the government after finishing off one too many dirty jobs – she's chased down and targeted for death by fellow agents and her bosses. She gives the classic Eastwood performance, speaking in monosyllables and abrupt sentences – and only when necessary (there's also shades of Karen Sisco from Soderbergh's "OUT OF SIGHT" in the relationship Mallory has with her father.)
Instead, her character emerges through her ass-kickings, which see her fighting with agility and athleticism that is literally non-existent among Hollywood actresses. The fact that she's a champion fighter only improves upon the already-visceral feeling of the movie – when we see her kill people with her bare hands, we know that she can actually do it. And Christ, those fight scenes. Her strikes are realistic and wince inducing to a point that is unseen in the films of any country! She doesn't need great acting range – her brutal hand-to-hand work immediately puts her in the pantheon of cinematic martial arts masters like Bruce Lee, Lo Lieh, or Jimmy Wang-Yu. And the fact that she's fucking gorgeous only makes her more perfect for the silver screen.
Described by Soderbergh himself as a "female take on THE LIMEY", "HAYWIRE" is simple and unpretentious in all the best ways. Many will deride the far-from-innovative narrative, but it allows the brutal action to take center stage while Soderbergh's impeccable pacing and exceptionally clean (yet unimaginably violent) compositions keep the experience from ever seeming empty. It's genius in its simplicity, designed to serve the fact that people go to martial arts films for the specific purpose of watching fight scenes. Watching Mallory fight back against her attackers, one-by-one, is really all there should be, plot-wise. Soderbergh knows anything else would simply obscure the main attraction.
You see, things like UFC have changed modern audiences: we now know what deadly choke holds look like, what it honestly takes to knock a man (or woman) out, what it takes to break a bone. But MMA has been used in all the wrong ways by Hollywood so far. It's either turned into fodder for teenage angst ("NEVER BACK DOWN"), as a joke ("SPIDER-MAN"), or as the plot device for grand melodrama ("WARRIOR".) Soderbergh, however, goes incredibly far in the other direction. UNLIKE Asian martial arts films, the fights here are anything BUT balletic: they are brutal, mixing up professional fighting techniques with the geography of each scene (for example, a brawl through a hotel room obviously employs the television.) In fact, Soderbergh may have even strayed too far from the graceful style of Asian cinema and towards honest representations of pro fighting: at one point Mallory falls a foe with the deadly triangle choke, which sees an attacker asphyxiate their victim by the force of their crossed legs around the neck. Instead of reacting as they usually would to the climax of a scene, the audience laughed at the hold, probably assuming it was a cunnilingus joke. When the man was dead 8 seconds later, however, they were no longer laughing.
And speaking of Mallory's victims, the supporting cast here is the definition of star studded; every role filled with a familiar face whose personality defines the character (so Soderbergh doesn't have to.) Antonio Banderas as a shady money man, Michael Douglas as the upstanding government agent, Ewan McGregor as a squirrelly overseer, Michael Fassbender as a James Bond type: these roles could not fit more naturally. And Fassbender, obviously, deserves the best notice: his eventual battle had me biting my hand and curling in my seat; the sheer hatred with which he and Gina tossed each other around the room is astounding, their punches connecting with such brutality that I found myself instinctively looking away.
This may not be Soderbergh's best film, but this him working at the top of his game as a craftsman. Everything he does here is perfect; accentuating the focus on the action without being showy or distracting attention from the story: the modern-but-jazzy soundtrack, the non-linear construction (designed to allow an audience-surrogate character into the picture early), the flashes of black-and-white, and even the crazy plot flourishes (he comes up with the best ending for a car chase I've seen in a long time.) But most of all the way he lets the fight scenes play without soundtrack, enhancing the natural/realistic take on combat and forcing us to take in the painful sounds of flesh-striking-flesh. This is a shit-kicking good time; nirvana for fans of martial arts cinema. I can't wait to see it again.