Monday, November 7, 2011

World on a 'Haywire'


The thing about Steven Soderbergh is that I truly believe he's a "filmmaker's filmmaker." He's almost impossible to pin down, in that he's tackled multiple genres, multiple styles of filmmaking, and vastly different budgets, all while retaining (in fact, increasing) his credibility. He does all this while promoting a basic love for the craft. He makes movies that are enjoyable (the "Ocean's" films, "The Informant!") just as often as he makes movies that are experimental and very personal ("The Girlfriend Experience" or "Schizopolis"). They're all unique films, yet they all bear a mark distinctly his own.

So it is with great pleasure that I can reveal a good two and a half months before you're able to see it that "Haywire" is everything you could hope it to be, if you're one of those people who just wants to watch a great action movie without the frills. This is tight, controlled filmmaking that makes the genre come alive.

Reteaming with Lem Dobbs for the first time since 1999's "The Limey," Soderbergh has once again assembled a cast worth drooling over -- Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton -- as well as a peculiar newcomer, "American Gladiator" Gina Carano. It's not the first time Soderbergh has explored atypical casting (he used porn star Sasha Grey in his small drama "Girlfriend Experience" recently), and the gamble certainly pays off. Carano is the film's biggest question mark. It's her movie; she plays Mallory Kane, a super-hardened ex-Marine working for a private contracting company that requires various dirty operations performed around the world. 

Far from being awkward on camera, she exudes a rather natural effectiveness as an action heroine. Perhaps it's because Soderbergh has her DO things much more often than say them, but she seems perfectly in control of every sequence (especially the fight scenes). It helps to surround her with such A-list talent, where even Channing Tatum comes off effective in a small role (if Soderbergh can do anything, it's get solid work out just about anyone).

Dobbs has crafted, much like "The Limey," a screenplay that at a glance appears rather conventional. It has the spy-ring-operation-that-reveals-larger-conspiracy plotline very familiar to fans of the genre, and it has fight scenes, a car chase, a foot chase, a "shake off those tailing you" scene, and more. The characters are broadly drawn to fit archetypes far more than particular, quirky people, and there's little room for character development or tangential conversations. And really, I wouldn't have it any other way.

What's great about the Dobbs/Soderbergh partnership is that the seemingly skeletal screenplay gives the director room to develop the movie on his own visual terms. This is the Soderbergh I feel like most people love. It's not the cocksure deviousness of the "Ocean's" movies, but it's the small-yet-big feel of many of his mid-level successes that manages to host great sequence after great sequence. For those who get dizzy watching Jason Bourne but still relish a great scene, get in line for "Haywire" -- every camera placement, every edit in the film's multiple fight sequences feels perfectly designed and executed to give a clear sense of how it progresses and who's doing what so we're left to revel in the spectacle of violence in a coherent space.

This is an action movie for people who care about action movies. It shows brutal fights from long shots instead of close-ups, it has moves that feel intensely well-choreographed, and some of the chase scenes have some really beautiful camera work and position choices (such as leaving the camera in the car for most of a snowy-woods chase with a fantastic payoff). There may be a complaint when the film finally goes into wide release of its "emptiness," but as someone who loves genre I'd spit on that notion. Its structure and shape show the testing of feminine form against greed and power, a series of tests meant to reveal one's unknown drive and push towards some kind of truth. Best of all, "Haywire" makes clear Soderbergh's love for this kind of movie, and it's that unfettered love that's the unsung pulse behind every moment.

Soderbergh quite elegantly -- perhaps an odd word to use in a film with such messy bodily wounds -- restores an acute sense of fun to realistic fight scenes; an indebtedness to the basic craft of where to put the camera, how to light a scene, and when to cut; and an indelible nod toward the core of the action genre that should satisfy anyone looking for hard hits and sweaty-yet-beautiful actors. It's a blistering ride.

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