It’s a shame Haywire remains the lone action movie in Steven Soderbergh’s filmography.
It’s a shame Haywire remains the lone action movie in Steven Soderbergh’s filmography. The film wasn’t much of a box office success, nor was it a resounding critical hit, but at a lean ninety minutes, it’s one of the more satisfying and elegantly constructed entries the genre has seen in quite some time. In interviews promoting the 2011 film, Soderbergh distilled his inspirations down to the salivating log-line of “a Pam Grier movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.” The film’s original title, Knockout, was much more in line with this approach, placing real life MMA fighter Gina Carano in the lead role as Mallory Kane, a burnt operative framed and on the run. There’s also the palpable influence of early Bond films like From Russia With Love looming over the production, but that classical spy-fi aesthetic is tempered by Soderbergh’s unique personal bent.
Mallory Kane is an anomaly from the average female action lead if only for her relative normalcy. Mallory is proficient, but not invulnerable. Carano is traditionally attractive and possesses undeniable sex appeal, but there’s little to no extraneous glamor forced around her person. Rather than the superheroic sexpot short shrift women are given in modern action pictures, Mallory’s predicament feels more like an extrapolation of a workplace drama than a globetrotting spy thriller.
Kenneth (a particularly slimy Ewan McGregor), the director of the private company Mallory works for, is also her ex-boyfriend. Mallory plans to leave the firm behind, which will potential cripple Kenneth’s ability to get assignments, as most clients request her by name. As some pathetic mixture of survival instinct and pettiness, he sends her on a job in Barcelona that leads to another job in Dublin where she’s set up for murder and nearly killed. But this is Mallory Kane. She’s not dispensed with so easily. Upon first watch, this simple framework, from Lem Dobbs’ script, feels like sufficient pretense for a series of tightly choreographed fight scenes and a few shootouts. But revisiting the film opens it to more interesting interpretation.
One of the chief criticisms of Haywire upon release, outside of Carano’s shortcomings as an actress, is how the fights, and Mallory’s journey as a whole, lack real thrills. It’s not an inaccurate observation. Individually, each fight is brilliantly staged and expertly captured by Soderbergh’s patient, reserved camera work. But taken as a whole within the film’s structure, they’re more like fascinating exhibitions than genuine steps cascading down Maslow’s hierarchy. On the other hand, action scenes in movies like this, regardless of plot relevance, are designed to entertain the audience between all the more boring bits of jibber jabber. In Haywire, both the combat sequences and the tete-a-tete dialogue are presenting the same case, despite neither being concerned with making you fear for Mallory’s actual safety.
Mallory is the only woman in the film and she’s surrounded by men who, to varying degrees, are all potential threats. With the exception of Michael Angarano as her erstwhile hostage and Bill Paxton as her Marine novelist father, there is no man Mallory can really trust. That natural paranoia is a staple of the spy genre, but there’s something about the way Mallory’s situation is presented that feels more psychologically harrowing than the usual procession of telegraphed double crosses. The typical confusion of warring loyalties is transposed to feel like the creeping omnipresence of the patriarchy.
Soderbergh said his primary interest in making the lead spy a woman was the extra layer of fear an audience member might have for her in any given situation. Along those lines, many moments in the film feel like dramatized versions of everyday struggles. A woman might root through her boyfriend’s phone fearful for some brand of infidelity, but here, Mallory snooping through a fellow operative’s Blackberry ultimately saves her life, preparing her for a hotel room ambush that follows not long after. Soderbergh was adamant to present Mallory as an equal. “Don’t think of her as a woman,” Kenneth says in one scene. But that doesn’t stop a scene of her alone with op contact Studer (Matthieu Kassovitz) from reeking of sexual threat.
All that aside, this isn’t some early adopter, double blind SJW genre reinvention. It’s hard not to see those parallels, but they seem unintentional given Soderbergh’s stylistic aims here. He takes a similar tack to the shrewd populist approach of Out of Sight or his first Ocean’s movie, starting with a straightforward paradigm and executing it with an arty effervescence. There’s an irreverence to the films that came before it that reads a little like Tarantino’s exploitation era love letters reduced down to their core elements, free from postmodern embellishment and spruced up with a blithe, jazzy sense of efficiency. As much as Soderbergh’s channeling the iconography of Bond and Foxy Brown, it’s the shameless pop auteur streak of Hitchcock that steers the ship.
Hitchcock loved to rely on the viewer’s pre-existing relationships with movie stars to act as an effective shorthand for characterization. Rather than waste screen time with character building dialogue that could be spent watching Carano’s artistic pugilism, Soderbergh uses Michael Douglas to imply smarmy governmental duplicity in Alex Coblenz the same way Jimmy Stewart embodied naivete in Vertigo. At one point, Kenneth is pressed for the details of the betrayal that burned Mallory. She wants to know who the man she’s been framed to kill really was. Kenneth responds, “a journalist, a dissident scientist. What does it matter?” That’s about the most fourth wall breaking the film is willing to go, squarely confronting the transient importance of the MacGuffin.
Perhaps if the film’s marketing was more in line with David Holmes’ flamboyant score, kept the original title and embraced Soderbergh’s unique approach to directing action, we might have gotten another adventure or two with Mallory Kane. Carano never quite turned into a powerful screen presence in her roles since, but there are winning moments here that suggest sequels with Soderbergh might have helped foster her potential better. Mallory sipping from a glass of wine while cleaning her guns felt, if only for a passing moment, like the minor dawning of a new franchise heroine. As it stands, Haywire still succeeds as a curious “what if?” moment for the modern action film.