Friday, February 03, 2012
I don't need to talk about spoilers to recommend Haywire. Its awesomeness isn't in its plot twists. In fact, the plot is one of the weaknesses of the film – that and Gina Carano’s acting – but neither of those things hurt the movie in a significant way. If you’re a fan of ‘60s and ‘70s action movies, you’re going to be just fine with Haywire. Likewise if you enjoyed Hanna or Drive or other artful takes on the action genre. Carano’s a new actor with some learning to do, but she’s better than most of the army of other action stars I’ve been giving passes to my whole life. And while the plot may not be anything new or unique, the way it unfolds in the movie – and especially the way Steven Soderbergh shoots it – is. The film is simultaneously familiar and fascinatingly different from anything I’ve seen before.
You find out the plot in the first few minutes of the movie. Mallory Kane (Carano) is a contract soldier on the run after a mission went wrong. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the scene in the diner where she talks to a colleague named Aaron (Channing Tatum) about coming in. She’s not sure if she can trust him, so she only mentions a few details: Barcelona, Dublin, and someone named Paul. If you’ve seen the trailer, you also know how that conversation ends. The film then flashes back to the mission to connect those details with each other, but doesn’t yet reveal what went wrong because Kane’s not sure of that herself. The rest of the movie is her figuring it out, which I loved watching her do.
The revelations aren’t stunning; they’re actually pretty easy to figure out. Everything makes perfect sense at the end, but there’s no moment where I went, “Oh! I didn’t see that coming!” And though I liked Kane, I never felt like the stakes were all that high for her. That may be because Carano couldn’t give me a reason or maybe it was problem with the script, but while I loved watching her work and wanted her to succeed, I never felt emotionally invested. That’s a criticism I can give to most action movies; it’s just that as great as the rest of Haywire is, I wanted that part to be great too.
What’s great about the film starts with Mallory Kane. Gina Carano has a perfect look. I don’t mean that she’s attractive (though she is); I mean that she looks like a real person and not a movie star. I love Angelina Jolie action movies, but I can’t lose myself in them. I’m always aware that I’m watching Angelina Jolie. In Haywire, I was just watching Mallory Kane. I’m sure that has a lot to do with this being Carano’s first film, but it also has to do with her body type and just the way she carries herself. She feels authentic.
In fact, “authentic” is a word I thought of a lot as I watched this movie. As cliché as the plot can be, Soderbergh brings it to life and makes it genuine. The fight scenes are brutal and awesomely choreographed, but more important than that, they play out with no music and minimal sound effects. When Carano punches someone (or just as often, someone punches her), it sounds like someone’s really getting hit. I didn’t feel like I was watching a fight scene in a movie; I felt like I was in a diner or hotel room watching two people try to kill each other.
Soderbergh does other things like that too. When Carano hijacks a car and its owner, Soderbergh puts the camera in the back seat for a continuous shot of Carano’s driving. Looking over the actors’ shoulders at the dashboard and the road ahead, I could practically smell the newness of the car. There’s also a great foot chase where the camera stays in front of Carano, focused on her as she runs and breathes. I’ve never noticed an action star’s breathing before, but I’ve done enough running to know that breathing is an important part of it. That detail adds so much to making that scene sincere. As do Carano’s actions in another scene in which she’s being chased. Most action heroes always know what they’re going to do next, but Carano occasionally has to stop and look around her to figure out her next move. She had me looking around too, wondering what she was going to do next.
And of course it’s especially nice to see Haywire star a woman and to treat her so well. Mallory Kane is a sexual character, but she’s never sexualized. And she’s not just a man recast as a woman. I’m thinking especially of her relationship with her dad (Bill Paxton) and how that feels like a real father-daughter relationship, but there are other points in the movie where she’s particularly feminine. But then she’ll command a mission or there’ll be a fight and she’s as tough as any man.
I admit to some discomfort watching her get beat up, especially when her male opponents hit first. The old playground rule, “Boys don’t hit girls” kept popping into my head, but I’m not the only one. In the film, a male assassin looks uneasy as he accepts a contract on Kane. “I’ve never done a woman before.”
The person hiring him delivers my favorite line from the movie. “You shouldn’t think of her as a woman,” he says. “No, that would be a mistake.” It's not that she's at all masculine; it's that if you think of women as people with an inherent need for protection and gentle handling, you've got the wrong idea about Mallory Kane.