If Steven Soderbergh follows through on his oft-repeated promise to retire from filmmaking in the next couple of years, we'll be losing one of the most prolific and inventive directors in American cinema, but on the evidence of his last two films, perhaps the guy needs a break. Haywire follows hot on the heels of last year's Contagion, and both pictures feel like the work of a man who is only as engaged with his subject as he needs to be. In both cases, it feels like Soderbergh is experimenting, setting himself little challenges to overcome, but while there may be a sense of satisfaction in this approach for him, the audience can often sense when a filmmaker's heart isn't really in it.
The frustrating thing about this is that Soderbergh is a director who really knows how to put a movie together. When he's firing on all cylinders, his films have a distinct energy and rhythm, but at other times his pictures can feel curiously cold and detached. The chief pleasure offered by Haywire is a chance to see this brilliant craftsman assembling action sequences, but that's really all his film does have to offer and I'm not sure if it's quite enough. Between these episodes, Haywire has a curious dead quality; it's almost as if the actors have stumbled onto the set, picked up the script and read their lines for the first time on camera. Haywire has a terrific cast, but none of them seem to be bringing everything they've got to the party.
In fact, a couple of the professionals are outclassed by the amateur in their midst. The central character in Haywire is Mallory Kane, an ultra-professional contract killer, and she's played by Gina Carano, better known as a mixed martial arts fighter rather than an actor. It's not the first time Soderbergh has thrown a non-actor into the mix, but at least he knows how to do it without leaving them out of their depth. His tactic here is similar to the one he took with Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience – he picks someone with a natural presence and charisma, he gives them a role that doesn't rely on dialogue, and he plays to their strengths. Carano's strength, of course, is most evident when she lets her fists do the talking, and Haywire comes to life when Soderbergh allows her remarkable physicality take centre stage. As we might expect, the fight scenes are shot and edited with a slickness, clarity and lightness of touch that heightens our appreciation of the actors' efforts. When the fists start to fly, Soderbergh mutes the jazzy score that accompanies almost every other sequence in the picture so we can only hear the sound of impact, or the participants' laboured breathing. There's no sense of the characters holding back in these encounters – it really looks like it hurts when punches are thrown and bodies crash into furniture – and Carano fully convinces as a woman who can hold her own in a male world.
Plenty to admire, then, but what the film really lacks is any sense that it is ever likely to live up to its title – even at its most action-packed, there's a cool reserve about Soderbergh's direction that prevents Haywire from reaching fever pitch. The other thing that's noticeable by its absence here is a story. Lem Dobbs' screenplay is a fairly half-hearted rehash of The Limey's narrative – there's even a climactic ankle twist and confrontation on a beach – but without the time-shifts and memory games that Soderbergh utilised so vividly in that picture. The plot is explained iN a couple of scenes towards the end of the film, but by then it doesn't really seem to matter as the story is essentially a flimsy skeleton that exists so Soderbergh can hang a few cool scenes onto it.
The frustrating thing about this is that it wouldn't have taken all that much to turn Haywire into something more than that. A rewrite, some restructuring and a little more care taken with the performances might have given us a picture that has a sense of weight or purpose, but Soderbergh seems happy with what he has, and that's a little disappointing. Haywire is the kind of movie this director could make in his sleep – regrettably, as you watch it, you might suspect that he has.