On Wednesday, I braved the howling winds and freezing conditions of the Hidden City to see if Haywire was as good as everyone said it was. By one measure, it was three times better than Mission Impossible 4; there were a whole two other people in the fleapit with me this time.
Haywire's a very professional movie, and I find myself admiring what Soderberg did without being able to say I had a great time at it. Even though he's been at pains to hire really good actors, and create situations which will feel immediate and real, there's no moment of connection in the movie which packs the same punch as the completely nonsensical climb up the side of Dubai's tallest building. Soderberg's always struck me as a chilly and reserved director, and his characters in this movie aren't appealing; those two things combine to make a movie which I can appreciate at a purely technical level without true enjoyment.
It IS always fascinating to watch a movie play out in a locale that you know. In almost every action movie I've ever seen, there's a quick sweep through some city which doesn't make a button of sense in terms of the local geography; the locus classicus for me is Defence of the Realm, where Gabriel Byrne is swept from his house to the British Mukhabarat, past a range of iconic landmarks, which lie on no conceivable route between any two imaginable locations in this world or the next. I've never even lived in London, and even I knew this was style triumphing over sense. Soderberg takes great care NOT to do this. When Mallory Kane runs out of the Shelbourne Hotel after capping Michael Fassbinder's character, her route across the city makes perfect sense; down Stephens Green, onto Dawson Street, through alleys to Grafton Street, onto Chatham Street and then into a taxi coming down that little alley by Pizza Stop which almost always has a taxi on it coming from the Westbury Hotel's entrance after a drop off. Anyone who's lived in Dublin could watch that and think Yup, that's how you'd do it. I was sitting there as Mallory got her breath leaning against a lamp post thinking "Hey, I've locked my bike to that post. Regularly." Often after going to the movies, in fact.
The educated eye can read in the shooting choices the way that Soderberg was working to keep his movie within budget. There's a car chase, but it's so leisurely that he probably didn't even need to get extra insurance for it. Most of the action round Stephens Green and Grafton Street has the unmistakable look of footage shot at dawn, when it's easier to control the sight lines and the background from shot to shot. The last thing I saw which was this efficient was Bret Ratner's silly but pragmatic Tower Heist. Mind you, with Soderberg, it's as much about him knowing at the beginning exactly how he wanted the thing to come out and then just doing what he needed to get that.
It's the mark of a good movie - or an amazingly bad one - that you think about it afterwards, coming back at it from different angles for days and weeks. I've been mulling over Haywire for several days now, trying to figure out why I didn't quite like it, and along the way I realized that it doesn't actually make any narrative sense. In one way the narrative couldn't be simpler; Mallory Kane (played by a non-actress Mixed Martial Arts champion who Soderberg had to treat almost as scenery whenever she wasn't beating the hell out of people) has been betrayed by shadowy spook figures from her shadowy spook world and she has to kill them all to bits to clear her name or get revenge or at the very least show us how good she is at beating seven bells out of everyone else. So far so good, but the shadowy spook figures don't seem to have a plot which makes any sense as, you know, a conspiracy. What we're finally told - and I think it's easiest to assume we're still being lied to as the credits roll - is that they chose to get rid of Kane by setting her up as the patsy for the killing of a politically inconvenient journalist. Actually, when I write it down like that, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than the explanation as it's delivered on screen. The thing is that so many people get killed in the course of creating this set up and following it through (including at least four cops) that you have to wonder why people who cared so little about killing random folks wouldn't just have straight up killed Kane without all the complications. Shorter movie, I know, but it would make more sense in business terms, and I think I've already made it clear that I think Soderberg is all about chilly efficiency.
Maybe my confusion comes from the problem that the shadowy spooks are played by Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor and … Michael Douglas. I can remember thinking Michael Douglas was cool; he's just charming beyond belief in Romancing the Stone; then came Wall Street, and since Gordon Gecko I don't think he's ever played a character who deserved to live through the end of the movie. So for much of the movie I was left rooting for Ewan McGregor, except he turns out to be NOT AT ALL what I expected him to be. Problem is, what he turns out to be means that his first scene with Michael Douglas makes no real sense. Well, it all makes my head hurt. So much for the simple reinvention of old fashioned 1980s spy movies.
Apparently this was shot under the name Knockout, which must have seemed like a clever title for a movie about a beautiful woman who can beat people unconscious. Haywire DOES better catch my feeling about the plot line.