“I need to break down my process and start over again if I’m going to come back. Because I’m not gonna come back unless I’ve figured out a new way to do this, by my definition. I don’t know if that’s gonna happen or not.” – Steven Soderbergh.
I have this theory that the grueling process of making the unconventional epic biopic Che (2008), coupled with its subsequent commercial failure, broke director Steven Soderbergh’s creative spirit. It didn’t help when was fired from Moneyball (2011) over creative differences. By his own admission, Soderbergh’s interest in making “serious” films had been replaced by a desire to make “fun” ones that included the satirical docudrama The Informant! (2009), the disaster movie Contagion (2011) and the action film Haywire (2012). Built around MMA star Gina Carano, it came out of Soderbergh’s desire to make a 1960s style spy thriller (originally the now-abandoned The Man from U.N.C.L.E. film) but mutated into a photo negative of a typical James Bond film in the sense that Haywire surrounds a ruthless female protagonist with attractive men trying to kill her. While critics generally gave it the thumbs up, audiences were not interested in Soderbergh’s genre experiment and the film disappeared quickly from theaters. Has he lost the plot or were audiences simply tired of seeing ass-kicking female action stars after Salt (2010), Hanna (2011) and Columbiana (2011)?
The first thing one notices in Haywire are how the action sequences differ from most other action films. In the prologue, top-secret operative Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is confronted by another, her ex-partner Aaron (Channing Tatum) in an upper New York state diner. It quickly erupts into a brutal fight. Instead of the usual Hollywood sound effects and frenetic editing, Soderbergh utilizes actual sounds of flesh hitting flesh in relatively long takes at a distance so that you can see exactly what is happening and where with none of the trendy, disorienting hand-held camerawork and editing that is the norm. He also refuses to accompany this fight with any kind of musical score that would manipulate one’s emotions, which makes the sickening sounds of breaking bone and grunts of exertion and pain all the more jarring.
Mallory is a private contractor hired by the United States government to do dirty jobs for them via her handler and firm director Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). Through a series of flashbacks, we find out that she and Aaron were hired to do a job in Barcelona (scored to a snazzy retro Lalo Schifrin-esque score by David Holmes) and soon afterwards she left the company. But of course it is never that easy and Kenneth ropes her into another assignment, this time in Dublin, Ireland. She’s part of a power couple along with Paul (Michael Fassbender), a freelance operative that Kenneth is trying to woo over to the company. However, Paul tries to kill Mallory (in a brutally efficient fight sequence) and she finds herself on the run.
Some criticism was leveled at the casting of non-actor Gina Carano and her inability to emote or her flat line readings. While she certainly isn’t going to win any acting awards for her work in Haywire, she isn’t any worse than “master thespians” like Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal back when they first started out, and they were wildly successful. So, why not Carano? Is it because she’s a woman? Female action stars have historically had a tough time acquiring any kind of mainstream success. Just ask Geena Davis. With the one-two punch of Cutthroat Island (1995) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), she effectively destroyed her A-list status. Angelina Jolie is a notable exception and easily the most successful female action star in the world with megahits like the Tomb Raider films, Wanted (2008) and Salt. Carano may not have the acting chops of fellow female actions stars Jolie and Kate Beckinsale but unlike their impossibly thin physiques, she’s built like a believable woman of action with her finely toned body. She has the imposing physical presence that Jolie and Beckinsale lack but without losing her feminity.
Soderbergh wisely surrounds Carano with an impressive cast of veteran actors that include Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas as well as up and comers like Michael Fassbender. Their presence elevates what could have easily been a direct-to-video time waster into something a little classier. This is also achieved through Soderbergh’s top-notch direction and super slick camerawork. He’s in fine form with a fast and loose style befitting a stylish spy thriller. He also adopts the same kind of hazy filters he utilized in The Informant! and a variety of them so that each location stands out, much like he did in Traffic (2000).
Haywire saw Soderbergh reunited with screenwriter Lem Dobbs who has worked previously with the director on Kafka (1991) and more infamously on The Limey (1999) (his dissatisfaction over the final product is well documented) and their latest collaboration is a solid genre workout. His screenplay is lean and trimmed of any unnecessary narrative fat. He doesn’t give Carano huge chunks of dialogue, which is wise considering her lack of acting experience. Instead, he leaves that up to the rest of the experienced cast who do all of the heavy lifting in terms of exposition dialogue. Interestingly, Haywire features a father-daughter relationship and a climactic confrontation on an oceanfront beach much like The Limey.
One night, Steven Soderbergh caught a MMA fight on television that involved one of its most well-known female fighters, Gina Carano. He had been thinking about making a ‘60s spy movie but it wasn’t going anywhere. Her fight and subsequent interview afterwards, which impressed him by how charming and sincere she came across, inspired him to build an action film around a woman. In June 2009, Soderbergh was fired from the production of Moneyball due to “creative differences.” Suddenly free to do another film, he tracked Carano down at a time when she had just lost a fight. “It seemed like a good time for the two of us to get into a room, me having been fired and her having been beaten.” Their first meeting consisted of a four-hour lunch in which they talked about her family and upbringing. He wanted to get a sense of who she was and if could he work with her. In addition, he explained how he liked to work and what would be involved. Soderbergh also needed her permission to pitch the premise to a studio, which was her starring in an action film surrounded by A-list actors.
While making the film, Soderbergh told the stunt coordinators that he didn’t want to have any large explosions and nobody flying around on wires. It had to be “something a human can do,” he said in an interview. To this end, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor did all their own fight scenes, rehearsing extensively with Carano. Soderbergh decided not to put any music over the fight scenes because he felt it would “take away from the realism. It would take you out of it.” The hotel room fight was inspired by a brutal brawl in a hotel room in Darker than Amber (1970) starring Rod Taylor that Dobbs had recommended Soderbergh watch. Haywire’s hotel room fight sequence took two days to film with Carano and Fassbender actually hitting each other – he threw her into a T.V. at one point and she smashed a vase over his head.
For the film’s score, Soderbergh talked to frequent collaborator David Holmes about the soundtrack work of Lalo Schifrin and, in particular, the jazz horn sound he used on Bullitt (1968). According to Soderbergh, the scored needed to “sound more like the character than the genre.” He wanted it to reflect what she felt rather than what the film felt like generally. Holmes’ groovy soundtrack is somewhat reminiscent of the work he did on the Ocean’s films, which had a definite funky retro vibe.
Haywire received mostly positive reviews from critics. For example, Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “A film like Haywire has no lasting significance, but it's a pleasure to see an A-list director taking the care to make a first-rate genre thriller.” USA Today also gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig felt that, “Carano's charisma, physicality and daring keep the adrenaline high and the clashes captivating.” The Los Angeles Times’ Betsy Sharkey wrote, “The deficits are somewhat offset by the filmmaker's sheer technical wizardry. Even Soderbergh's worst work (and Haywire isn't that) cleans up nicely with such serious attention paid to lighting, framing, casting, costumes, colors, sets; and, per usual, with the director handling the cinematography too.” The Washington Post gave the film three out of four stars and Ann Hornaday wrote, “One of the reasons Haywire is such a pleasure to watch is that its director, Steven Soderbergh, doesn't overplay the film's hear-me-roar subversions. Temperamentally, he's an understater, and he approaches his first foray into pure action with the same evenhanded cool he lends to every genre he has ever tackled.”
However, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-" rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Haywire is zippy and visually sophisticated, with tonal palettes color-coded (as in Traffic) to help make sense of time and place. But it zips to nowhere, fun only for those who agree to enjoy watching a woman inflict pain like a man, for the dumb pleasure of watching her fight.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott said of Carano: “Once the talking stops and the action begins, her professionalism is very much in evidence and exciting to watch. And yet, somehow, it cannot quite relieve the tedium of a movie that is too cool even to pretend that there is anything worth fighting about.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Carano is her own best stuntwoman, but in the dialogue scenes she’s all kick and no charisma. The MMA battler lacks the conviction she so forcefully displayed in the ring. She is not Haywire‘s heroine but its hostage.