If nothing else, Steven Soderbergh is probably the most adventurous American director working today. Since entering the cinematic conversation in 1989 with the tawdry, controversial Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he’s demonstrated a willingness to tackle almost any subject on almost any budget. Where most acclaimed directors carve out a niche to focus on particular eras and themes, Soderbergh has moved from historical epic (Che) to brat pack cool (Ocean’s Eleven and co) to abstruse sci-fi (Solaris) seemingly without blinking.
Haywire, his latest, is ostensibly an action thriller, but it’s closer to Soderbergh’s smaller, more experimental genre experiments than it is to his commercial ventures. There is an obvious parallel to 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, another film for which Soderbergh cast his lead from outside Hollywood: here the star is mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, playing a contractor for a private security force. Where The Girlfriend Experience peeked into the existence of a high-class New York escort, Haywire reads like a bare-bones reduction of the contemporary Hollywood action formula. It’s as if Soderbergh wants to distill the Bourne tradition into its most basic elements: paranoia, secrets, and gritty, bone-crunching physical action.
What’s missing is a compelling story; the plot of Haywire consists of a collection of standard action movie plot points strung together with little explanation or logic. The film’s opening sequence has Carano’s Mallory and her team (including Channing Tatum, as expressionless as ever) tasked with extracting a dissident journalist from his imprisonment under house arrest. When Mallory is then sent to Dublin to meet with an operative called Studer, however, things quickly go awry, and Mallory is forced to go rogue and try to understand how Studer, the journalist, and her employer are all connected.
There’s a lot of running across rooftops, grainy digital cinematography, and opaque telephone calls, but surprisingly little head-bashing: Carano’s flying kicks impress when she gets to do them, but somehow that ends up being not very often. Meanwhile, an impressive troop of actors – Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, and Ewan McGregor all appear – mug for the (unflattering) camera and say lines like, “The motive is always money” to each other without it being quite clear how they’re all related to the heroine, if at all. It’s as if Soderbergh picked up his camera, called up his favorite boys in Hollywood, and suggested they all go shoot up a quick movie together in Dublin and Barcelona, content be damned.
It’s not bad, for all that: there’s a sinister stillness to the film that satisfies, and a grizzled Antonio Banderas injects some levity into the proceedings. Once you get used to the strangeness of it all – the semi-blurry camerawork, the unstyled, unpolished editing, above all the unsettling quietness of a movie in a genre that usually offers more bangs and explosions than you know what to do with – there’s even something interesting about it. I haven’t quite figured out what it is yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s there.