Steven Soderbergh has been telling interviewers that he’s planning to take a sabbatical from filmmaking because he has lost his inspiration. His lack of interest is palpable in Haywire, a rote exercise in action filmmaking that is sleek and polished and instantly evaporates from memory. More unusual for Soderbergh is that the movie isn’t even all that fun to watch: Once you get over the novelty of watching mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano beat up her male co-stars, the film has practically nothing else to offer.
Haywire was written by Lem Dobbs, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on Kafka and The Limey, the latter being one of the director’s most entertaining movies, as well as an ingenious deconstruction of revenge-drama formulas. Haywire sports a similarly fragmented chronology, but the various shifts in time and place don’t build toward anything, and Soderbergh isn’t interested in doing anything radical with the action genre, either. He shoots the fight scenes as if they were musical numbers, often keeping the actors’ entire bodies in the frame and holding on shots as long as possible. But whenever people aren’t kicking or punching each other, the film’s energy sags.
Carano, who hadn’t acted in movies until Soderbergh sought her out, is an engaging screen presence: She brings an inner life to her character of Mallory Kane, a covert-ops soldier who specializes in the sort of missions the government never owns up to. Her eyes radiate intelligence and depth, and Carano seems capable of doing a lot more than close-quarters combat or parkour-style stunts. But the movie doesn’t know what to do with her, other than to send a procession of baddies and double-crossing agents her way.
Haywire starts promisingly, with a sudden eruption of violence between Carano and Channing Tatum that catches you off-guard, followed by a long sequence in Dublin in which she pairs up with another spy (Michael Fassbender) who may be planning to kill her. There is also an unusual car chase that comes to a startling end.
But once the script starts to reveal the complicated answer to the question “Who betrayed Mallory, and why?” Haywire becomes increasingly dull. Soderbergh’s trademark emotional coolness, so effective in movies such as Contagion, this time signifies the director’s detachment. There is some fun to be had in watching actors such as Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas playing shady characters whose allegiances aren’t always clear.
But Soderbergh, who is capable of making even the driest subject matter fascinating, isn’t interested in the cloak-and-dagger stuff. Haywire is more about the fight scenes than the stuff that comes in between them, which makes it no different than your typical Jean Claude Van Damme picture: It’s simply more stylish and better made. Carano is a bonafide livewire who looks as good in an evening dress as she does in sweats and a hoodie. She takes the movie a lot more seriously than Soderbergh does, though. Tired and remote, Haywire is the work of a filmmaker in dire need of a vacation.
Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Bill Paxton, Michael Angarano.
Director: Steven Soderbergh.
Screenwriter: Lem Dobbs.
Producer: Gregory Jacobs.
A Relativity Media release. Running time: 93 minutes. Vulgar language, bone-crunching violence. Opens Friday Jan. 20 at area theaters.