Thursday, January 19, 2012

Haywire: Learnin' the tropes

Haywire reunites director Steven Soderbergh with screenwriter Lem Dobbs. Though not as revelatory or formally engaged as The Limey, the pair’s 1999 sleeper, which marked a comeback for its star, Terrence Stamp, Haywire is nevertheless, like The Limey, a smart, playful vamp on old tropes: lone wolf hired muscle takes a gig that turns out to be a double-cross; she becomes a loose end; corrupt former employer now seeks to eliminate her... you know the tune. Like The Limey, Haywire is also a film unusually concerned with geographical coherence, thus we get chase scenes that work up quite a sweat ensuring that we understand exactly how we got onto the fourth floor of this particular building or down that particular alleyway—there’s even a pair of demonstrative scenes in which our heroine, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), carefully consults a covert GPS device. Soderbergh, as always, operating as his own cinematographer, knows that one of the problems with modern action flicks is that they’re disorienting in all the wrong ways. In a film that’s all about escape, pursuit, concealment and ambush, identification is dependent on knowing where the hell we are.

That sense of where-we-are also applies to genre, and Soderbergh, though always looking for a novel twist, has a knack for letting us know just what kind of movie we’re watching: a thriller, in this case, with the emphasis on thrills, but a thriller that doesn’t insult your intelligence. While the sequences involving operations or surveillance play out in cool but propulsive montages set to David Holmes’ lightly funkified suspense score—part In a Silent Way/Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, part Shaft, part post-rock—the actual fight scenes are relatively light on cuts, feature no music whatsoever, and look pretty painful in their awkwardness. Random objects are creatively appropriated as weapons. Furniture does not always break, and such little insertions of realism add a pleasing layer of ouchiness. Yet other details, such as the tumbleweed that tumbles by during a final scene between Mallory and her new employer (Michael Douglas), allude to a certain detached sense of irreverence guiding this project.

Soderbergh has attracted his customary diverse range of acting talent, mostly recognizable stars with a little something extra to catch us off guard: Antonio Banderas with a beard, Ewan McGregor with a bad haircut (and a half-assed accent), Bill Paxton as a moustached military-fiction-writing dad. Everyone seems to be having the right amount of fun. As for the tough, terse, well-built, largely expression-free Carano, well, lets just say she’s a mixed martial arts star first and actor second. I confess that I caught myself wondering now and then whether Asia Argento was too busy. Or Michelle Rodriguez. But Carano’s gung ho/no bullshit attitude, her obvious ability to do at least some of her own stunts and her lack of over-psychologizing function fairly well in what is above all a movie meant to move, to function, to divert. “You shouldn’t think of her as a woman,” says the baddie who betrayed her. “That would be a mistake.” Indeed, Mallory is a firecracker, a killing machine with a moral compass. I guess she has feelings too. Maybe we’ll get to explore them in the sequel.

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