All Steak No Sizzle
Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 output reminds me a lot of post-Pinkerton Weezer. I don’t want to speculate as to what hurt Soderbergh’s feelings the way Pinkerton’s poor sales and appearance on Rolling Stone’s worst albums of 1996 list (I’ll never forgive you for that, Rolling Stone) hurt Rivers Cuomo’s, but Haywire and Contagion feel like Soderbergh playing with genre movies, the same way everything after Pinkerton felt like experiments with different pop styles, rather than an earnest attempt to make personal music. Taking on less personal work a great way to pump out product quickly and not be too emotionally invested if it fails (because they’re essentially cover songs anyway), but you can sense the detachment. And a detached artist is… kind of boring.
Haywire is Soderbergh’s contribution to the Bourne/Hanna/Columbiana/Abduction sassy vengeance oeuvre, with the twist being that he cast former MMA star Gina Carano, one of the only pretty girls around who actually looks believable beating up grown men (the other? you guessed it, Maya Angelou). Adding believability is almost revolutionary in the hot-chick-beats-up-dudes genre, and Soderbergh, competent as always, does a solid job building a story that tracks, and never makes you go “what? That’s stupid.”
Only he forgot one key ingredient – fun. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding that Haywire‘s audience cares about which secret agent double crossed Agent Sexpunch (was it C-Tates? Banderas? Ew-Greg?), when really we just want to see her look sexy and punch stuff. There’s one truly transcendent fight scene in a hotel room that hits just the right note of intimate brutality, where Gina seems like she might f*ck you but will probably kill you, but the rest of the film just sort of chugs along clinically, hitting all the positions, but never quite giving you the full girlfriend experience.
Gina Carano isn’t a terrible actress, which is a bigger compliment than you might think considering she’s a near-total novice (I don’t really count her cameo in Blood and Bone) and headlining a major motion picture (she’s better than Rampage Jackson, for instance, who’s wildly charismatic in person but a boring character actor). She does an adequate job playing “gruff, ex-military hardass,” but there isn’t much else for her to do, and this film desperately needs some charisma or some Seagallian silliness. Or failing that, a couple more fight scenes. For a lot of the film, it feels like Soderbergh was trying to match the pacing of a 70s cop show, with two or three fight scenes bobbing in a soup of long mood shots of Gina Carano driving set to masturbatory trumpet noodling. Christ, man, enough with the jazz, are you trying to put me to sleep? No one’s watching this movie for the cinematography or the hipster editing. It isn’t bad, just… forgettable. Which is kind of worse.
Gina Carano always had a warmth and a sweetness and a bit of mystery to match her toughness, which was a big part of her appeal. She’s cute. You don’t get much of that here, just gruffness. And running. With nary a sexy shower scene to be found (CRIMINAL OVERSIGHT). Soderbergh films fight scenes much more enjoyably than the usual shaky Bourne bullshit, where you cut from someone’s lapel to a blurry shot of the floor, but Haywire just doesn’t have that much fighting. And when you go to a film starring a martial arts star, you expect, I don’t know, martial arts.
Also, I’d like to institute a ban on the move where one character gets another in a choke hold, and the other elbows him in the guts to break the choke. I know they need some way to make fights seem like a back-and-forth affair, but I don’t buy anyone letting go of your throat because he got elbowed in the hip. Especially when it happens like 12 different times. Mix it up a little! It’s a movie for Christ’s sake! Tony Jaa does backflips off an elephant! Jackie Chan wrapped a rope around himself and jumped off a building! Sonny Chiba punched a bull to death! The “just add a little jiu-jitsu” method of American movies is boring as shit.
There was a scene in the middle of the film where Gina Carano kicks a guy through a glass door, puts a pillow over his head, and shoots him in the face, which made me squeal with girlish delight, as bullets to the face so often do. But in the context of the rest of the film, it was kind of like the one good song off Make Believe.