With Haywire comes a brand new species of thriller. You’ve heard of the “taut thriller.” Haywire is the “low affect thriller.” At what point does a foot chase turn from suspenseful to tedious? Haywire is a good laboratory for testing that moment.
I’m sorry. I know Stephen Soderbergh is one of our most respected directors, but this movie just feels phoned in. For one thing, the pacing is lugubrious. Maybe we’re supposed to appreciate the mundanity of violence, the everyday monotony of a spy’s life (something we see powerfully rendered in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). Or maybe Soderbergh was intent on avoiding the tendency toward melodrama in such genre movies. But the movie plays like the depressed cousin of Oceans 11. Steven, word of advice: if you’re going to make a genre movie, make a genre movie.
He has cast Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts champion, as his central character, rogue agent Mallory Kane. How is this different from the low-rent action movies in the 80’s that cast actual kung fu and karate champions in lead roles, reaching their apotheosis with Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Steven Segal?
I have to admit, though, that the scenes of close-quarter combat bring something new to the genre. No flying cart-wheel or triple salchow kicks here, only in-fighting in its purest form—short jabs, all fists, elbows, and locked forearms. The kind of thing done so well in the fight scene in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain and even in that galley fight scene in Under Siege. Most movie fights smell of choreography. These look like the actors just got fed up and flat threw down on each other.
The best scene in Haywire is the first. Mallory and a fellow agent meet in a diner. We’re not sure what they’re talking about, but we know something must have gone terribly wrong in Barcelona and Dublin. He’s to bring her in, but is he still a friend or does he have some other motive or directive? The tension and ambiguity in the scene play out exactly the way they’re supposed to in such movies. This is real tension, real suspense.
But the rest of the movie is so by-the-numbers that it’s hard to get worked up—much stalking, copious running across of rooftops, mounds of peering around corners. Ho-hum. Makes me want to dust off my DVD of Marathon Man.
And what about the sloppy storytelling? At one point, our hero borrows a bystander’s car to make her getaway, insisting that he join her. Why? Because he has information she needs? Nope. Because she needs to borrow his gas card? Nope. Because he’s the exposition mule. Bingo! Having him in the car allows her to explain to the audience exactly what happened before the story began. She even makes him memorize the names of the principal characters. To what end? Does she want him to report to the police? No. In fact, his work done, he disappears from the movie fairly quickly.
Maybe I’m the wrong audience for this movie. But if that’s true, so was everyone else in the theater the day I saw it. My test for whether a movie fully engages an audience is how much feet scuffling, leg bouncing, and butt shifting take place. If you’re totally absorbed in the movie, you’re not aware of how uncomfortable the seat is, etc. For Haywire, I’m afraid, the fidget factor was fairly high.
Haywire is one of those movies where the audience always knows more than the characters know. A little dramatic irony can enhance our investment in the story. More than a little, my friend, is deadly. When our hero learns how the bad guys always seem to know where she is, she’s utterly gobsmacked. Hey, weren’t you paying attention in Tradecraft 101? And oh my, could it be true that the higher-ups in the agency are even more corrupt than the bad guys? Hello? The 70’s are calling. They want their plot point back!