February 01, 2012


Those of you who like their formalist art films punctuated by bouts of vicious hand-to-hand combat are advised to hie themselves to Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. MMA fighter Gina Carano stars as a private contractor at the cross-section of crime and espionage who embarks on a mission of vengeance after her employer and ex-lover (Ewan McGregor) sets her up for a hit. Like many of Soderbergh’s genre pieces, its classical narrative acts as a framework for giddy stylistic exploration.

The dusty, desaturated color palette and score by David Holmes recall a 70s that never was. A sonically muted firefight on the streets of Barcelona presents a fresh take on the gun battle. Like any action director of note, he goes wide for the fight sequences, allowing us to see the choreography. It draws on the MMA style in an opened-up way that isn’t just grapples, balancing realism with bone-crunching impact.

For an obvious source of inspiration, see Jon Boorman’s classic revenge drama Point Blank, with Lee Marvin. Soderbergh appears on the commentary track in conversation, raising it above the default back-patting to a master class in atmospheric crime drama.

Today, rather than trying to teach fighters how to act, we tend to see actors trained to fight. Roles that might once have gone to Steven Seagal now go to Liam Neeson. In that light Carano represents a bit of a throwback. She’s not super-expressive as an actress, even after extensive post-production manipulation of her vocal track. But she does have presence, and unmistakable plausibility as a bad-ass, even in the non-combat sequences. In that she’s a throwback to Bronson and van Damme.

See it for its own hyper-cool virtues, and for the atmospheric inspiration it might lend your Night’s Black Agents series.