It’s probably a dereliction of my sworn duties as a dilettantish semi-pro occasional pretend critic to characterize this new Steven Soderbergh joint entirely in terms of genre slop cinema—there’s a prominent visual cite to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, for god’s sake—but I was still pretty pissed that nobody in my sparse, 50-and-up weekend evening art movie crowd was moved to stand up and scream “she’s going haywire!!!” This thing whisked me back like nothing else to days of sitting in a friend’s basement at age 13 with rented Don “The Dragon” Wilson vehicles on VHS, or maybe a good Godfrey Ho/Cynthia Rothrock feature—at one point there’s a fight in a dry cleaners where Gina Carano starts up a conveyor belt and I almost had a stroke thinking someone was going up on a hook like in Undefeatable, though I know Soderbergh is more of a classicist.
Nonetheless, Haywire makes for a good object lesson in perceptual boundaries between disreputable and super-reputable filmmaking becoming especially translucent by virtue of a filmmaking team’s distinct choices, some of them potentially made out of necessity. Carano, for example, does not register as an especially “good” actress, at least not in terms of delivering lines in the quasi-naturalistic, un-self-conscious manner by which “good” acting is typically judged in high-profile films. One gets the feeling, however, that such concerns are irrelevant to Soderbergh, who is (as usual) fascinated by the manner in which things get done: procedures, activities, etc. His interest in a hand-to-hand combat-type action movie, then, extends not only to obsessive depictions of every grunt, thrust and wriggle of killing somebody with your body—some might deem it a sexual depiction, and if you by chance happen to be the kind of person that gets off on muscular ladies squishing guys with their legs I can think of one scene that’ll have you laying in the aisle, cigarette in hand—but also long, observational depictions of the hero timing out how quickly she has to move before a lookout returns to his post, or exactly how she must navigate the rooftops and stairwells of Dublin to evade the police.
Carano can do all of this, physically, allowing Soderbergh to infuse his action with what Bazin termed “essential cinema”—straightforward photographic respect for the unity of space—so that Carano scrambling over barbed wire fences in long shot can embody the dialectic between the realms of reality and imagination: the “imaginary documentary” of Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, its formalist verisimilitude assuring the knowledgeable audience as to the “reality” of the action, despite Lamorisse not really filming a zoomorphic balloon’s whimsical frolics any more than Soderbergh is actually documenting a rogue private defense specialist’s authentic flight from real police across the skyline of urban Ireland. Indeed, the eternal discussion of what makes for “good” hand-to-hand fighting action—unbroken shots vs. plentiful cuts—analogize to Bazin’s dichotomy in The Virtues and Limitations of Montage between The Red Balloon and Jean Tourane’s The Secret of Magic Island, the latter a fancy of pure montage requiring all manner of animals to be gentled exactly long enough so that a shot can be taken to eventually add to another shot, to eventually create the illusion of abjectly anthropomorphic behavior among beasts; I intend no slur by this, but so many of today’s fight scenes pieced together from a feint here and a tilted camera there remind me of nothing so much as ducks at a carnival.
Yet Carano must also deliver some dialogue, and I am convinced that her director, less wed to whys than hows, has made sure that everyone around her performs in a subtly unreal, stylized, arguably “bad” manner, embodied most perfectly by Ewan McGregor’s reediest possible American accent and most viscerally by the presence of one Channing Tatum, who brings the whole project deliriously close at times to incorporating blown takes into its body proper, as Godfrey Ho would, though Tatum and Soderbergh ultimately hold back, the dirty teases. But anyway, “[i]f the film is to fulfill itself aesthetically we need to believe in the reality of what is happening while knowing it to be tricked,” per Bazin, and it is plain to me that Carano seems more real when accompanied to the precipice of badness, rather than abandoned there.
So too goes Lem Dobbs’ scenario, which is basic to the point of seeming skeletal; montage alone might be theorized as a literary process, in that it is pictures and pictures put together like words and words, but I suspect my crowd of silver foxes expected something more robustly novelistic than a tale of conspiracy and intrigue set among a frankly small pool of potential backstabbers given over to rigidly simple characterizations. Again, Carano here exemplifies. Her protagonist is flavorless when not hauling herself over or into or on top of obstacles, a “strong heroine” seemingly collated from positive traits and signifiers—she is tough yet feminine yet modestly dressed yet looks good in a dress yet remains independent from men yet is sex-positive yet challenges paternalistic adversity yet maintains good relations with her actual father yet etc. etc.—but devoid of actual, recognizable personality. Such concerns once more seem beside Soderbergh’s point; the character of Carano comes from her physicality.
Still, one can sense a perhaps more vivid, less corporeal effect leaping from Dobbs’ contextualization of the story’s fights and flights. Even on a purely visual level, Haywire is quite keenly set on upsetting expectations of audience gaze in a movie about a sexy action lady—for a helpful contrast, see last year’s Colombiana, un film de Olivier Megaton, and Zoë Saldana’s aptitude at squeezing into a body stocking she also wears as stockings—with the glamour of objectification cast entirely upon Carano’s handsome male co-stars; both Michael Fassbender and Antonio Banderas enjoy prominent chest-baring scenes, while Tatum finds himself tasked with the classic hapless, misled hero’s love interest role, and its compulsory scene of throwaway physical affection.
Dobbs complicates this delight by making virtually every romantic or sexual potential (which is to say everyone besides Bill Paxton’s supportive daddy) into an ominous source of threat. Carano rarely starts fights in this movie; more often she’ll be talking or walking or sitting in the company of some hunk, only to find herself slapped or punched or splashed with hot coffee. Abused, and always suddenly, as if the pleasure of looking or interacting with enticing things is eternally charged with violent peril. Nonetheless, Soderbergh remains steady as Carano clicks into action, the camera placidly watching her movements as she copes. Such are the processes of survival. An easy added reference point for Haywire is slow-building Hitchcockian suspense, plaintive glances down a street and quickening footfalls, but soon it all threatens to erupt into a special brand of gendered horror, as if suggesting that a woman’s means of coping with the world must be as efficient and cold and professional as the governmental mechanisms battling disease in Contagion, a film which my editor hastens to remind me was similarly shot through with invisible, viral menace: a dread potential in every one of Soderbergh's observed spaces.
Collaborative or not, this is auteurist stuff, extracting some special effect from genre content, even content occasionally relegated to ironists or mockery. I am compelled, however, to note that Soderbergh also commits a deadly genre sin: he front-loads all the good action into the first hour of the movie, leaving the third act feeling like a series of inevitabilities. Indeed, not to spoil anything, but the final confrontation is played as a literal joke, a blackout gag instead of as the senses-shattering clash expectations would dictate. And while I might be overly charitable, I wonder if this isn’t also part of the director's mission.
By way of explanation, I return again to Contagion. My most vivid memory of the film is my own wish that Jack Webb was still around to cameo as Secretary of Homeland Security, as it was so very much a just-the-facts kind of movie. Moreover, and perhaps irrelevant of the late Mr. Webb, I saw it as a distinctly political work from its just-the-facts nature, insofar as it hailed the good function of muscular governmental agencies in the face of community threats; its images of armed troops turning citizens around were glazed with a certain calm, while hot anger was reserved for Jude Law’s ridiculous supervillain website charlatan, representative of every anarchistic, ignorant potential of the internet, a veritable hive of scum-brained “individuals” mooing stupidly into mobs while good Laurence Fishburne kneels climactically to apply a vaccine to a needy child. It was almost propagandist in that way, hailing a central, collective, Federal victory.
Haywire is leaner, meaner, and a bit more focused. Its implicit love is still for functionaries-as-functionaries—the people who do things for Soderbergh’s camera to observe, and who in Dobbs’ story context do the gritty work of affecting lives—but now they are not hailed as agents of something greater, because the classic dictates of conspiratorial suspense teach us that establishments are sinister and manipulative. They are also bureaucratic, and hands-off, so that Carano’s battles grow progressively easier the further up the ladder she climbs. Less “imaginative,” as Bazin might say, so that soon she’s having a beachfront showdown with an actor edited into fighting shape like a waterfowl made to fly in an aircraft. Faced with the physicality of their transgressions, the fat cat villains are mocked with defeat by cinema fiat. They cannot even truly move in Soderbergh’s action movie. “Shit” indeed.