Now here's an odd little duck of a movie. Martial arts action film starring a former Mixed Martial Arts champion in her film debut - sounds like some B-grade production going straight to DVD, with perhaps a supporting role by Don "The Dragon" Wilson to lend some "star power". But this one's directed by an Oscar-winning director, and features a Who's Who of A-list actors. I may have been too hasty in pronouncing Steven Soderbergh as a filmmaker who's uninterested in genre; he certainly seems committed to doing different things, and Haywire is definitely a pretty big departure from anything he's done before. I was already looking forward to it from the moment I first heard of it, more so after this fascinating interview where he talks about his gritty, realistic style of shooting fight scenes - and especially so after this glowing review from AV Club.
Which is why I had to watch this movie twice, just to figure out why I couldn't quite like it.
A woman (Gina Carano) meets a man (Channing Tatum) at a rural New Mexico diner - and without warning, their conversation turns into a brutal, bare-knuckle fight. She beats him and flees the scene in the car of a good Samaritan named Scott (Michael Angarano), to whom she tells her story; her name is Mallory Kane, the man she just beat up is Aaron, and they are both covert operatives for a private military contractor run by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). After working with Aaron on a rescue job in Barcelona, she then takes an assignment from Kenneth - who is also her ex-lover - in Dublin, where she is partnered with Paul (Michael Fassbender). When Paul frames her for a murder and tries to kill her, she knows she's been betrayed, but not why or by who else besides Kenneth. Whilst evading capture and trying to reach her father (Bill Paxton), the only person she can trust, she must piece together the details of both the Barcelona and Dublin jobs, which involved a government official named Coblenz (Michael Douglas) as well as a shady information broker named Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas).
Yes, I watched this twice, and I can say it improved on the second viewing. But the first left me cold and perplexed, and my rating is forced to reflect this. It could've been because the digital sound system in my cinema - MBO Kepong Village Mall - was off, and so the sound wasn't loud enough, which for this film in particular would've significantly spoiled it (about which more later). Maybe the fact that the sound at Cineleisure Damansara was much better (although it kept going on the fritz; seriously, it's getting near impossible to get a pristine technical moviegoing experience nowadays) helped a lot.
Because I had two big issues with the movie, the first being Gina Carano's acting. There isn't much of it. Although Soderbergh and his screenwriter Lem Dobbs do their best not to tax her already limited abilities, her monotonous flatness still grated on me. I kept thinking how much better if, say, Angelina Jolie - to name one of the very few credible action heroines - were playing Mallory Kane; at least she'd have been able to convey some humanity to the character, something the audience could root for and sympathise with. Carano's performance only proves how even a simple role such as a taciturn, lone-wolf action hero requires actual acting; without it, we don't feel a thing for the character and subsequently the movie. Still, she looks great, and I can admit that she was terrific during the fight scenes.
Which brings us to my second issue, that being the direction. I've said before that I like action movies that attempt to deliver the goods with style and freshness, but the way Soderbergh went about it ended up muting the thrills rather than emphasising them. Now, don't get me wrong; anyone who goes to watch this is doing so for the fight scenes, and they're pretty damn good. They're brutal and bloody and bone-jarring, and look for all the world like fights between people who are trained to kill, not fight. And Soderbergh has the great idea to drop all background music during each fight, so that we hear every deafening crunch and smack and grunt. (Which needs to be deafeningly loud; it wasn't at MBO Kepong.)
But other action scenes, like an early foot chase in Barcelona and another later chase through the rooftops of Dublin, go on too long and are too dull. The way Soderbergh films them is to always keep a wide angle, always cognizant of geography and where exactly everything is - an admirable tenet, but in execution ends up lacking in suspense and genuine thrills. Like his last movie, he's clearly aiming for strict realism rather than typical action-movie over-the-topness, which means Haywire simply isn't interested in dishing up many of the genre conventions we've come to expect. The dialogue is purely functional and completely lacking in witty or quotable lines. Exposition is conveyed sparsely, and in a dialogue-free manner whenever possible. And the climactic fight scene - which, in most action movies, would pit the heroine against her toughest and most intimidating opponent - has Carano versus Ewan McGregor at his most squirrelly.
But okay, like I said, it improved on its second viewing. Carano's woodenness didn't bother me so much, and I could appreciate the subtleties of its story that I missed the first time round. I liked how it dealt with Mallory's weakness for good-looking men whom she works with; it explained how she let her guard down with Paul, it illuminated her relationship with Aaron, and it probably even set the whole plot in motion with Kenneth. It practically makes her a female James Bond in how she seduces and casually discards her lovers, which makes for interesting subtext. Another thing Bondian about the movie is the jazzy musical score (when it isn't silent during the fight scenes), which recalls swingin' '60s spy flicks; Soderbergh is clearly aware of his influences. I could even appreciate Dobbs' screenplay not wanting to hit all the clichéd beats of a martial arts action flick, to have things play out more unexpectedly.
Still, this is a movie I really really wanted to like, and it would've been nice if I didn't need two viewings before I could do so. It's a movie that sounded so much better on paper - a gritty, realistic martial arts action film starring a bona fide MMA champion for authenticity in the fight scenes, made by a visionary award-winning director and supported by a cast of great actors - than it turned out on film. I'd be extremely leery of recommending it to anyone; during each of my viewings, there were people leaving the cinema before the movie was over. I think most Malaysians who watched this found it infuriating and disappointing. But if your tastes are a bit more discerning, you might want to check it out. Just be wary that this Steven Soderbergh action movie has a lot more Steven Soderbergh than it has action.
NEXT REVIEW: Cinta Kura-Kura
Expectations: lamaaaa tak tengok filem Melayu