The first time Steven Soderbergh saw MMA fighter Gina Carano on TV, his first thought was “wouldn’t it be cool if I built a big all-star Hollywood action movie around this girl, despite her complete lack of acting experience?” The first time I saw MMA fighter Gina Carano on TV, my first thought was “wouldn’t it be cool if I hooked up with her?” I guess what I’m trying to say is, Steven Soderbergh has a lot more clout than I do.

The result of Soderbergh’s instant obsession with Carano is Haywire, a spy-thriller-action movie starring the MMA superstar as ex-marine turned U.S. government contracted operative Mallory Kane. Sent on a mission to free a Chinese dissident held hostage in Barcelona, Kane is soon betrayed by her superiors. Escaping the attempt on her life, Kane embarks on a righteous mission of revenge in her quest to find out who was behind it all.

Alright, sure, this is the six-thousandth time this sort of story has been put to film. That’s not the problem. Nor is the problem necessarily that the film tries to overcome its generic story cliches by going the old “style over substance” route. That, in and of itself, needn’t be a bad thing. There are plenty of movies that pull it off – Drive and Hanna are two recent examples that immediately spring to mind.

The problem here is the type of style. Haywire feels like 100% unfiltered Soderbergh, that’s for sure – but that’s not always a good thing. Look, I like Soderbergh – you gotta give it up for a guy who has dabbled in so many genres (mostly successfully), and there is perhaps no better director at merging indie sensibilities with mainstream tastes. But there’s the rub – Soderbergh is always walking a tightrope between those two extremes. When he gets the mix just right, it can be fantastic (like in Out of Sight or Contagion), but on occasion he can plunge too deeply into the pretentious side of things, trying too hard to affect a “too cool for school” sensibility, which in turn makes it impossible to connect to the film on any sort of emotional level (I’m looking at you, The Girlfriend Experience). That’s the case here. And if you’re not getting what I’m saying, let me put it another way – Haywire is more Ocean’s Twelve and Ocean’s Thirteen than it is Ocean’s Eleven.

Like the Ocean’s sequels, Haywire is a film that oh-so-desperately wants you to recognize how cool and hip and unique it is. It almost feels like maybe Soderbergh was embarrassed to be making what is (or at least seems like it should be) a straight-ahead B-action movie, and therefore felt the need to mask it in post-modern stylistic flourishes in order to distract you from the lack of engaging characters or routine plot. Except that can’t be the case, because this whole movie was more-or-less Soderbergh’s idea (though it is written by Lem Dobbs, who also wrote the much better Soderbergh film The Limey, a far more successful attempt at subverting a cliched story with indie attitude). So this really just is Soderbergh’s idea of an action film – it’s like somebody tripped and accidentally mixed a few reels of a kung-fu movie into an experimental art-house movie. Except that actually sounds a little more intriguing than what we actually get here.

To be fair, the fight scenes are intense and exciting, exactly what you would want from a movie starring Gina Carano. Best of all, they’re filmed in glorious long-shots and coherently edited. Not only is this a nice change from the more common shaky-cam style that permeates most modern movie fight scenes, but it’s also a proper showcase for Carano – we can see it’s really her kicking all this ass, and in these moments it isn’t hard to imagine Carano easily working her way through most of the big male action stars of the moment. If there’s any knock against these scenes, it’s that the fights – as great as they may be – are nowhere near as brutal or exciting as the best matches from Carano’s actual MMA career. But hey, it’s a movie, so whatever. I don’t really want to criticize these scenes, since they’re clearly the best part of the movie.

But the dirty little secret of Haywire is that these fights scenes only make up about 5% of the movie. The rest of the running time is devoted to flat, static scenes of monotone discussions and long stretches of characters silently walking around and doing a whole lot of nothing, often set to a hip jazz-pop score. All in service of a labyrinthine plot so unnecessarily convoluted that it’s actually laughable – seriously, I’d love to ask Soderbergh and Dobbs what they think the movie gained by being told in non-linear flashbacks, as Carano narrates her tale to young man she has taken hostage (at first I thought this character would at least be important, perhaps the Marie to Carano’s Jason Bourne. But NOPE. He simply disappears halfway through the movie).

Seriously, there were spans in this movie where I sort of forgot I was even watching an action movie. But even when the action would start back up, I still wasn’t safe from the pretentious indie posturing – take a shootout and foot-chase in the streets of Barcelona, for instance, a sequence that flips back and forth between color and black & white for no obvious reason other than “hey look, it’s so different and cool!” Look, Mr. Soderbergh, there would have been no shame in just filming the more straight-ahead action piece this simplistic story seemed to demand, and leaving all your flashy, experimental film tricks at home. In fact, it probably would have been a lot better for the potential movie career of Carano, and wasn’t that the whole point of making this thing in the first place?

I guess that’s a good cue to finally discuss the elephant in the room – Carano’s performance. A number of reviews have criticized Carano for her flat delivery. And, well, they’re not wrong. Carano looks great, obviously, and has a kind of undeniable charisma when the movie isn’t asking her to do much more than beat people up (not enough) or just stand there silently (way too much). But when it comes time to deliver the dialogue…yeah, it can be pretty cringe-worthy. I have a feeling Soderbergh suspected this might be the case, and purposely made the Mallory character sort of a cipher on purpose. I’m not kidding – I just watched this thing yesterday, and I can’t think of any discernible character traits for Mallory other than she can fight and she bites her lip a lot. And look, it’s not that I mind watching Gina Carano biting her lip. I’m very pro Gina Carano biting her lip…

Watching this gif for 90 minutes > Haywire

…but that can’t be the only thing to hang your hat on when you want to be able to get behind a character and root for them. They try to give her a sympathetic relationship with her father, another ex-marine turned novelist played by Bill Paxton, but their chemistry is practically nonexistent, so that doesn’t work. They botch the chance to give her a connection with the aforementioned young man she takes hostage, so forget about that. Oh, but then there’s a scene where a former teammate of hers – that she worked with once and had a one-night-stand with  – is killed, and the movie wants us to believe it’s a really emotional moment. And, I shit you not, they have the nerve to briefly flash-back to that one-night-stand, with this guy she knew for all of two days at that point, and we’re supposed to think this is some devastating tragedy for this bad-ass chick who up until now has not shown anything resembling an actual human emotion? Fuck you, movie. Oh, and take a guess what Mallory’s big response to his death is. If you said “she bites her lip,” then congratulations, you’ve just won the “Mallory Kane is a shitty, boring character” trivia challenge.

Also, look, I’m not a Carano superfan or anything, but I’ve seen enough interviews with her to know her real voice. So, I gotta ask, what the hell is going on here, and why? In case you haven’t already heard, Soderbergh made the decision to digitally alter Carano’s voice in this film, making it deeper. Apparently he thought her real voice wasn’t tough enough (which is pretty funny, considering it is her real voice and she is really tough). I found this incredibly distracting, not only because I know it’s not her actual voice, but also because it always just sounds off in the movie. The digitally altered voice just doesn’t sound natural in the environment – it’s always a little too loud or piped in or something, and as a result Mallory never sounds like she’s even really in the same room as the other people in the scene. It feels like you’re watching a poorly dubbed kung-fu movie, except only one character is dubbed and the lips match perfectly. It’s weird, is what I’m getting at.

As for the other performances, well, whatever. Only Ewan McGregor, as Mallory’s sleazy ex and boss, has a real character to play, and he does a pretty admirable job. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas are essentially cameos, here only to boost the film’s star-power roster, and the effort they put into their work reflects that. Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender are both decent in small roles, even if most of their screen-time is devoted to getting beat up by Carano.

At the end of the day, I’m not surprised that many critics fell over themselves praising this movie – Soderbergh is a critic’s darling (usually for good reason), and this one has an edgy feel that kind of insinuates it’s elevating itself above the genre or whatever. Critics eat that stuff up. But I’m also not surprised that mainstream audiences rejected it – Haywire ran a very respectable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, but earned a dreadful D+ Cinemascore grade (the polling of actual audiences as they leave the theater). Interestingly enough, that happened the same weekend Underworld: Awakening was being torn to shreds by “legitimate” critics but was earning an A- Cinemascore grade. Obviously, this is partly due to audience expectations – people went in expecting a slam-bang action movie, and instead got a weird, boring art-house flick with the occasional fight scene. I know some people will point to this sort of audience reaction as proof that the mainstream audience doesn’t get good movies, but I don’t think that’s completely fair in this case. Surprisinly enough, TIME Magazine critic Richard Corliss actually got it right when comparing Haywire to Underworld: Awakening.

Underworld Awakening is not exactly the classic play Spring Awakening, or even the rock musical made from it a few years ago. The film has nothing on its mind except diverting people who want to get out of the house after midnight. But it does suggest a distinction in two kinds of action movies: the critics’ fave Haywire, in which Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh pays little heed to narrative flow or coherence, and this Underworld, with its slick corporate craftsmanship. The first picture is smart-stupid, the second stupid-smart. And I’ll take the idiot-savant pleasures of a vampire movie any day.”

I’m with you, Richard. There’s nothing wrong with trying to liven up the action genre a little with some unique touches here and there, but Haywire is so obsessed with being the anti-action movie that it totally loses sight of what it should be doing. It’s meant to be a star-making showcase for Gina Carano, but instead it feels more like Soderbergh standing on a chair, desperately waving his arms around and screaming “look at me! Look how cool I am!” The fight scenes suggest Soderbergh is correct in believing Carano has potential as an action star, but it will take a lot of molding, and unfortunately he seemed less interest in doing that for her, and more in masking her weaknesses behind a layer of experimental indie-bait nonsense. For now, if I want to watch an action flick with a bad-ass woman in the lead, I’ll take the simple joys of a Cynthia Rothrock movie.

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