After his recent dabble in the murky waters of the apocalypse genre with Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh followed it up with a stab at an action thriller. Haywire takes the tried and tested formula of 'super-secret operative getting double-crossed by their employer' and gives it a neat little spin by making the protagonist a woman. And the woman in question isn't one of the modern-day glut of interchangeable Hollywood heroines; she's Gina Carano, a real-life Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitor whose physical prowess gives the action scenes a visceral quality that's sorely lacking from action cinema these days.
Carano doesn't want for femininity but she's also a powerful presence on-screen, which makes for an eye-catching combination. She stars as ex-Marine Mallory Kane, and although her acting has been slated in various quarters she's not there to launch into Shakespearean monologues. In between the ass-kicking she doesn't disgrace herself with the talky bits, Soderbergh apparently having tweaked her voice in post-production to even out the performance, and it worked for me.
Ewan McGregor stars as Kenneth, the shifty head of Mallory's black-ops outfit, with Michael Douglas exuding class as Coblenz, Kenneth's US Govt. counterpart. Channing Tatum gets a minor role as some action-man beefcake (so it's not too taxing for him, then) and Antonio Banderas features as another shady goverment type. Bill Paxton plays Mallory's dad with his usual paternal warmth, and Michael Fassbender rounds off the ensemble as a British agent. You get the feeling that only Soderbergh could've assembled a cast like this for a film like this, as it would've surely been staffed with the usual straight-to-video suspects otherwise.
Soderbergh's editing is typically tricksy, launching us into the middle of what seems like an impenetrable story and having it recounted in flashback, but it's a great little hook to pull the audience in. It keeps our minds engaged with the present narrative while we try and piece together the backstory, and while the big reveal isn't anything too surprising it's neat enough. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes you don't have time to dwell on any specifics, and maybe that's a good thing, as a couple of little plot niggles creep in once the credits start to roll. The music is by David Holmes, who previously scored Soderbergh's Out Of Sight and the three Ocean's... movies. He's produced his usual jazz-funk infusion that may seem strange at first, but it dovetails perfectly with the director's intentional old-school thriller vibe.
Still, it's the fight action that you've paid to see, not Ewan McGregor's dodgy American accent, and this film is a knockout. There isn't any overdone wirework, whip-crack cutting or wobbly handheld visuals on display here, just a good sense of spatial awareness allied with bone-jarring choreography. Carano's MMA stylings are a joy to watch as she takes down a variety of baddies, and you can see that it really is her taking every bump. The same goes for some of her 'proper' acting cohorts too, particularly Fassbender who contributes greatly to the film's standout fight sequence (which he did without the aid of a stunt double).
Haywire feels like a '60s spy flick that's been given a 21st century makeover, and as such it might not be what people were expecting. Gina Carano's straightforward acting style won't endear her to everyone but she get the job done where it matters most, and any cracks are papered over thanks to the high-caliber supporting cast. The film isn't as techno-savvy as its contemporaries, preferring to focus on the interactions of the characters rather than cheesy shots of satellites zooming around the earth as they lock on to their prey. The jazzy music feels like a throwback to a different era, and even the action scenes may seem awkward to some, as they're not layered with flashy overly-stylised gloss, and neither are they captured with the hyper-real Shakey-Camô method. They are what they are: brutal.
Haywire was shot digitally on the RED ONE camera system using Hawk anamorphic lenses, and it was finished on a 2K DI. The results are an unusual - but not unpleasant - looking mix of old and new, with the elliptical bokeh of 35mm anamorphic allied with the raw clarity that a 4.5K digital image brings to the table. (This combination could be construed as a visual metaphor for the film itself.) The Blu-ray encode, presented in the original widescreen aspect of 2.35, is extremely competent. Fine detail ranges from good to excellent depending on how the scene is lit, Soderbergh's penchant for using available light running the gamut from a painterly, almost Kubrickian look to some interiors, to a blown-out & over-exposed appearance in certain daylight scenes.
Darker shots don't suffer in terms of black levels or shadow detail, both of which are superb. Grain is almost entirely absent, as one would expect from such a modern digital show, although a couple of dimly-lit shots look a little rough (this is where that slight reduction in fine detail occurs). There's no edge enhancement. The colour occasionally falls foul of the modern-day trend for teal and orange, but for the most part it's well balanced and appropriate to the environment, e.g. looking warm and golden in the candlelit hotel scenes, and dull and overcast during the Dublin rundown. With no encoding problems to report, this image gets a clean bill of health.
The 5.1 audio is encoded in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, and truth be told it's a perfunctory mix. The rears and the subwoofer get very little to chew on, and the dialogue is rendered just a little too low for my liking, with a few mumbled lines getting lost here and there. The score comes off best, with every Schifrin-esque riff presented in perfect clarity.
Haywire wasn't a big studio flick so the extras are as paltry a selection as I expected. The film's own theatrical trailer is included, along with three featurettes. The Men Of Haywire is five minutes of soundbites from the lead males about their characters. The Characters Of Haywire is some sort of internet ad campaign strung together into a nine-minute feature, presenting each character using clips from the film set to some inane dance music. So far, so rubbish, but the disc is redeemed with Gina Carano In Training, a sixteen-minute piece that takes a brief look at Carano's MMA beginnings and moves on to her work on Haywire. We get to hear from the lady herself and see her in action during her weapons & stunt training (you'll notice how different her voice is here than that heard in the movie, Carano sounding a lot like Sherry Stringfield in the latter).
The disc is locked to region B and auto-starts with skippable trailers for Woman In Black, Act Of Valor, Headhunters and, er, Snickers.
Haywire is a bone-crunchingly modern take on ye olde double cross'd spye story, lensed and edited with loving attention by director Steven Soderbergh. The Blu-ray has no technical hang-ups, with very good video quality and adequate audio. There's one bright spark of goodness in the slim selection of extras. I don't recommend this disc unconditionally, but if you're an action junkie and want something a bit more out of left-field, give it a rental.