There’s a really marvelous visceral moment buried in the midsection of Steven Soderbergh’s new action workout, Haywire. In grey Dublin, Mallory Kane (Mixed Martial Arts star Gina Carano) realizes she’s being tailed and calculates a strategy of evasion, leading her shadow on a twisty, fruitless pursuit through the city’s back alleys. This is a longish sequence, played out nearly in real time, and several minutes in, you think, “The camera is directing my eye and not shaking or cutting away to create a sense of excitement or disorientation. I can remember exactly where this chase started, and how we got here, and if I think back, the geography of this is not only logical but clear as a bell. Huh.” When was the last time you were startled by CLARITY at the cinema? It may be that our standards for coherence have dropped, but it counts as a small revolution when a shoot-em-up rejects sensory blitzkrieg for, you know, actually making sense.
Look, let’s not slather a cheeseburger in truffle oil here; Haywire is, on a script level, a bog-standard piece of spy action. It is about the vengeful rampage of a tough, beautiful woman betrayed by bad men. In the absence of narrative surprise, then, why does it exist? Why do we need another of these movies? The answer is, we kind of don’t, but what we will always need is good filmmaking and new movie stars. Haywire has both.
The opening scene wastes no time setting up the film’s straight-to-the-bone aesthetic, and the theme on which it will play relentless, increasingly brutal variations. Carano slinks into a plain little diner in Upstate New York and takes a seat, obviously waiting for someone. Within moments, it’s obvious that Soderbergh has found a startling new camera subject. Her beauty is blunt but catlike, her body compact and sturdy but unmistakably feminine. When she speaks, her voice has a seductive lower register that commands attention. Not only does she hold the camera, she flirts with it. One lick of the lips, one watchfully mischievous flicker in the eyes, and we’re off to the races. Sold. The film has its star. In walks the much more famous Channing Tatum (as, unpredictably, a muscle-bound, scarcely articulate lunk), who, after a cryptic tete-a-tete, smashes her head with a coffee cup. Carano’s subsequent takedown of Tatum accomplishes two things at once: 1. It establishes that Soderbergh will, blessedly, be shooting every fight in the film using long takes, giving us the full line of motion in the manner of an old Hollywood musical (though with absolutely no musical accompaniment, unless you count grunts, crunches and dry thuds as music). 2. We get to watch a beautiful woman beat the dogshit out of Channing Tatum. After Dear John and G.I. Joe, this is like coming up for air after a week underwater.
And so it goes for an hour and a half. Michael Fassbender? Toast. Ewan McGregor? Toast. In fact, with the exception of Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas and Michael Angarano, the male supporting cast of this film more or less lines up for punishment at the hands of avenging angel Carano. People are always lining up to call films like this feminist, but for a number of reasons, Haywire actually is. For one thing, Carano is only dressed “sexy” in one scene, and it’s because she’s required to be arm candy for a vain contact (Fassbender) Her response to her employer? “He should wear the dress.” Mallory Kane’s opposition is a network of men led by a jealous former lover, who urges one of her opponents not to “think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.” And yet Kane is all woman. She is the consummate lover (who takes the men she pleases and leaves the others), a figure of maternal warmth (Angarano, as an innocent civilian thrust into the conflict, is constantly under her protective wing), and a loving but independent daughter (it is this last quality which gives the film what emotional depth it achieves; Paxton gives a lovely, pained performance as Mallory’s father, and Carano clearly adores him). Set up in a patriarchal system, Kane sets about dismantling it one man at a time, and when Douglas, the morally neutral government man, offers her a deal, she tells him she’ll call him when she’s ready for it. This is a film about ass-kicking and medium-cool filmmaking, but it’s also about a woman who won’t let her agency be taken from her. It’s refreshing.
Soderbergh crafts Haywire in his now signature no-sweat sheen, all simple elegance and understated fastidiousness, dousing it here and there with David Holmes’s customarily swaggering score. It’s a professional package, and the relative incompetence of Haywire‘s contemporaries in the action genre makes it easy to overrate. Still, it’s impossible not to imagine this being a staple in the late-night DVD collection of anyone who cherishes the simple pleasures of watching a beautiful woman break arms and watching an A-list director toss off a genre trifle with dazzling insouciance. Now let’s hope someone besides Soderbergh can figure out what to do with Carano.
In sharp contrast to Haywire‘s no-fuss approach, Dante Lam’s Hong Kong blow-out The Viral Factor thinks that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing big and loud, and if you can set it on fire and cry about it so much the better. Where Haywire has a plot that you could write on the back of a cocktail napkin, The Viral Factor is still introducing major characters and subplots 45 minutes in. It’s a miniseries packed into 2 hours. This can be wearying.
Try this on for size: Interpol Special Forces badass Jon (Jay Chou) is foiled in his attempt to escort the creator of a dangerous virus through the streets of Jordan, and winds up with a dead ex-lover and bullet in his head. In two weeks the bullet will paralyze him completely. Meanwhile, the virus falls into the hands of a terrorist from JON’S OWN TEAM. Jon, visiting his mother, is informed that he has a brother Man Cheung (Nic Tse), he never knew. He goes in search of the Man Cheung, who is involved in the Malaysian underworld, and meets a pretty biologist who is soon kidnapped BY HIS BROTHER, who is involved with the plot to unleash the virus, but of course we have not yet met Man Cheung’s adorable daughter and the deadbeat dad who’s been absent from Jon’s life for over 20 years, and on and on and on and on and on.
That’s not even the first act.
Dante Lam is Hong Kong cinema’s most effective bridge between its uncertain present and its legendary past. His muscular handling of action incorporates classic Chinese fisticuffs with John Woo-scale shootouts, all shot with the moody lighting and jagged cutting of Hong Kong’s 90s new wave. The Viral Factor is not the best introduction to Lam’s gifts (that would be either Beast Cops or The Beast Stalker, two unrelated but deeply satisfying blood-soaked melodramas), but it gives him a chance to stage mayhem on an unprecedented scale. The sequence in Jordan, though only a prologue in context, is thrillingly assembled, while a shoot-out and footrace through Kuala Lampur is such an effectively sustained bit of run-and-gun chaos that you might be fooled into thinking you’re watching a classic in the making.
Lam and his screenwriters keep stubbing their toes, though, on their vastly overcomplicated plot and utterly ineffective stabs at summoning emotion. Chou’s family life and injury are dwelled on to the point of numbing repetition, and Tse spends his entire role either taking a cartoonish level of physical punishment or sobbing out loud (not to insult Tse’s commitment to character, but the extended crying scene with both nostrils leaking snot was probably a bridge too far). Families are reunited, helicopters chase each other mere feet above street traffic, glass is shattered, secrets are revealed, viruses are…I don’t know….factored, and everything that has ever been built is blown up. In the end, because this is all so much of a muchness, the effect is exhaustion without elation. It’s a blur.
And yet…you’re nearly convinced to forgive Lam his dramaturgical sins when he overturns a car and finds a way to shoot a kung fu battle inside its crushed body. That goes a long way.
Lam and Soderbergh could not differ more in their presentational approaches to physical action. Soderbergh’s commitment to simplicity must look pitiful to Lam, who shoots everything from 10 angles and pumps up the foley work and synth score to ear-bleed levels. Both directors, though, insist on obeying the rules of geography and spatial relationships. Lam may appear to be channeling Michael Bay when he blows up Humvees and sends unlucky extras flying sideways, ripped apart by shotgun blasts, but while Bay wants you to feel stimulated, Lam and Soderbergh want you to be stimulated.
Let’s take an example: the Jordan shootout in The Viral Factor seems on the surface to be the usual sound and fury. But Lam carefully lays out not only who the key players are, but where they are in relation to each other. It’s been set up exactly what both sides’ plans are, how many people are on each side of the conflict, what the terrain is, where the exits and vantage points are, etc. As the battle goes on, the attacking terrorists move the Interpol squad into narrower and narrower spaces, enacting a strategy that Lam illustrates with no obvious difficulty. We always know who’s shooting, and from where, because Lam knows that there is an axis on which the viewer’s eyeline depends for full visual understanding. You have to keep up with the pace of the cutting, but Lam has given such a complete picture of the space and the figures in it that his assemblage is fluid and comprehensible. He doesn’t cheat.
Soderbergh’s finest moment in Haywire is probably a hotel room smackdown between Carano and Michael Fassbender. It obeys the same rules as Lam’s Jordan massacre. We’ve spent time with the characters, we know their agendas, and the space has been delineated. Of course, that’s where the similarities end; Soderbergh’s fights have obviously been put together with immense care and effort, but the effect is that we’re watching captured reality. Cause and effect often happen in a single shot (it’s an irony that a film called Haywire is so orderly; Soderbergh observes everything with the unruffled gaze of a mildly amused god). Either way, both scenes take it for granted that you’re supposed to know what the fuck is going on.
Michael Bay begins Bad Boys 2 with an amusingly ridiculous shootout between cops and the KKK, but when the shit hits the fan, it’s not immediately obvious where the bullets are coming from. Every shot is like a tweet from the director, 140 characters designed to amuse and distract. Explosions happen with no particular motivation, characters scatter to unestablished spots, and you’re never exactly certain which way anyone is facing. Bay doesn’t really care, though. He wants you to get off on the adrenaline of the situation. He wants your brain to switch off. Because Michael Bay is full of shit. He doesn’t love action, not really. He loves EXCITEMENT. These are two very different things. Action is when someone does something for a reason. Excitement is something you can get from inhaling helium. Bay’s films play at the former while aspiring to the latter.
The audience, in any case, has rendered a verdict. Neither Haywire nor The Viral Factor did much business over the weekend, while Michael Bay commences with pre-production on yet another movie about robots who turn into cars and rap. In 3D. The previews that showed right before Haywire got everyone revved up for a bone-crunching good time, every single one a loud, confusing mishmash of action imagery familiar from a million films before and readymade for a million to come. When Carano and Tatum locked horns in that diner, though, there was an audible confusion rising from the crowd, as though someone had switched reels.
“Where’s the music?”