Steven Soderbergh, one of my favorite directors, can now check off the super-spy action thriller box on his checklist. A kind of workaholic wunderkind, he has not only put out eight films of stunning variety in six years–including a four hour biopic of Che Guevara, a disease epic, and the conclusion to his casino heist trilogy–but he is also on record as a relentless consumer of books and film. Watch for his drama (comedy?) about male strippers coming out this summer.
Haywire begs the question of whether or not the man should slow down and let his projects gestate a little longer. To its credit, the film is a classy action flick with a unique hook: it stars MMA sensation Gina Carano as a tough and beautiful spy who can more than handle her own in a fight. This makes for some great fisticuffs, gloriously displayed with minimal editing and no shaky camera movements (that I noticed). It demonstrates what an action film can be when stunt doubles don’t have to be edited into unrecognizability (I’m looking at you, ScarJo). Visually, Haywire wins; Soderbergh’s eye for color and line makes it possibly the most stylish action film in recent memory.
What Carano–and by extension the film–lacks, however, is screen presence. As a professional non-actress she can hardly be blamed, but throughout her face remains mostly blank and so does our identification with her and her character. Soderbergh tries to counterbalance this hollowness by importing the reliable screen presences of half a dozen actors (interestingly, there are no other women to speak of in the film)–Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton–but what would be a crackerjack ensemble cast in any other film can’t seem to make up for Carano’s blankness. It’s a direct counterpoint to The Hunger Games, a lackluster film buoyed by a very strong central performance.
The plot is told mostly in flashbacks, as Carano’s character explains her situation to a young man who is giving her a ride, and it involves the U.S. government hiring her services through the contracting agency she works for to protect an Asian dissident in trouble in Barcelona. There is a double-cross, of course, and she finds herself on the run and needing to clear her name. It’s incidental, but stylishly told. Soderbergh’s work here has all the clear markings of a well made film, but the lead lacks the emotional gravitas needed to make you care. It’s a very pretty picture in need of a soul.