Back in 1999 – it is hard to believe that it’s already been more than a decade – director Steven Soderbergh was in the midst of a career upswing. He rocked the landscape of American independent cinema in 1989 with his award winning, high-grossing art film Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Yet, over the subsequent decade, his career floundered. His follow up, Kafka (1991) – his first collaboration with screenwriter Lem Dobbs – led to much head scratching. Here was a film with Jeremy Irons and Alec Guiness that constructed a fictional narrative around Franz Kafka while drawing on pieces of Kafka’s work. Essentially, it’s an anti-biopic biopic, shot in black and white with some color sequences, and nobody saw it. Soderbergh’s string of failures continued after Kafka, and it wasn’t until 1998 that he came back on the industrial radar with the critically beloved and modestly successful Out of Sight. After Out of Sight, his phone started to ring (and it hasn’t stopped since), and he picked Lem Dobbs’s neo-noir The Limey (1999) to be his comeback piece.
I offer this context because the colorful collaboration between Dobbs and Soderbergh (one need only listen to the commentary on The Limey to get the lowdown) has never really changed. Like a pair of Jean-Luc Godards, Soderbergh and Dobbs pick a genre and strip it down to its essentials in order to go beyond it. Together again on Haywire (2012), the pair have made a revenge flick about a female spy, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), who after being betrayed by the men for whom she works (Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, and Antonio Banderas), returns to kick some ass…and maybe get a few answers.
Like The Limey, Haywire isn’t big on traditional characterization or exposition (it turns exposition into a running joke actually). The Limey used thirty-year-old footage of Terrence Stamp to add motivation, whereas Haywire draws on the tried and true – the scorned woman – in order to move on to other concerns. Yet, while the plot is rather conventional, the beauty is in the execution…literally. Quite simply, Haywire offers some of the best choreographed, shot, edited, scored, and mixed fight scenes since The Matrix(1999). While some may prefer the arthritic tremor of the Bourne films (2002, 2004, 2007), Soderbergh’s geography is always well-defined; the action is always legible while still being messy and energetic, and – unlike The Matrix – it feels tactile, untainted by digital effects (which worked in The Matrix because they took place within a digital world).
Soderbergh’s film succeeds for many reasons – from David Holmes’s Eurofunk score (who scored Out of Sight and the Ocean’s Trilogy as well), to the director’s ability to get top talent in bit parts, and to the director’s eye for film form (he shot and edited the film under pseudonyms). Yet, it owes its success primarily to Carano, a former Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Soderbergh saw on television and around whom he decided to construct a movie. As a non-professional actress among a sea of stars, Carano, as Kane, possesses a guarded nature that, considering her character, makes the minimal dramatic material work before she performs acts of violence on her male enemies. After feeling letdown by Lisbeth Salander and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), I can get behind Kane as a heroine in a revenge flick because she’s too smart and paranoid to wait to be victimized.