By Niall Anderson
The first problem with auteur theory is that it made everyone want to be an auteur. The second is that auteurism made versatility a matter of special regard, rather than an essential part of a director’s make-up. As auteurism took hold in the 70s, the salaried DIY wizards of Hollywood’s middle years must have wondered what was suddenly so impressive about people directing and writing their own movies. Not long before, writing and reworking scripts had once been an essential facet of the director’s job: you just didn’t get a credit for it. And yet here was someone like Robert Altman doing the same thing, and being called a genius.
Once it reached Hollywood, auteurism was always at least partly a brand. And while its stock has been diluted over the years (e.g. ‘From the Executive Producers of MACHETE and TRUE GRIT’), the brand has never quite lost its essential value. Which is what makes the case of Steven Soderbergh so interesting. Director, writer, producer, cinematographer, occasional composer and actor: he has all the characteristics of the classic auteur but seemingly none of the desire to be one. His films are diligent, expert and well-paced, composed in a fluid mixture of styles but without an indelible personal signature. He goes at crowd-pleasing thrillers (Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven), geopolitical thinkpieces (Traffic, Ché) and speculative science fiction (Solaris, Contagion) with the same cool regard and sober attention to detail. No type of film seems to excite him more than any other, and no pattern emerges as to what he’s likely to do next. In other words, his versatility tends to that of the old school. His newest film, Haywire, manages the unhappy feat of proving that versatility once again while ending up more of the same.
Written or perhaps just dictated down a phone by Lem Dobbs (Soderbergh’s screenwriter on The Limey), Haywire is a murky tale of black ops supersoldiers tearing around the globe beating the shit out of each other. Front and centre is Mallory Kane (former American Gladiator Gina Carano), a particularly in-demand shit-beater whose presence on a mission is worth extra money to her boss Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). We see Mallory in Barcelona doing her shit-beating thing while freeing a hostage. She is really, really good at it. But is the hostage who he appears to be? And is Mallory’s presence on the mission just a matter of her supreme competence and the money it makes for her boss? Of course not: there’s still about eighty minutes of the film to go!
Haywire’s plot, explained in Scooby Doo fashion at the end of the film, makes barely a lick of sense even after explication. Mallory’s gradual discovery that she’s the patsy in an international game of legitimised terrorism is also accomplished Scooby Doo-style: people are always leaving suspicious things in her line of sight – phones, incriminating emails, dead bodies. Early on in the film, Mallory announces that she “doesn’t like loose ends”, a statement that rather rebounds on the plot as Mallory ignores one loose end after another to go frowning onwards into another dodgy situation.
About that frown: Gina Carano is not an actor, but her frown does at least help give the film a consistent tone. The rest of the cast seem unsure how to respond to it. Antonio Banderas still seems to be in Puss In Boots: 3D, Ewan McGregor looks preoccupied by doing another one of his “accents”, while Michael Douglas comes across as just happy to be alive. Man-of-the-moment Michael Fassbender has a long cameo in the film’s best sequence, a frantic double-crossing chase through Dublin, during which he suggests that he may not be man-of-the-moment for much longer. The problem with Fassbender, put plainly, is that he cannot stop acting: even when Gina Carano’s thighs are wrapped round his neck, strangling him to death.
The liveliest parts of Haywire are the flights and fights. Filmed in long takes and with little but natural sound, they look like they really hurt, and are the one aspect of the film where you understand Soderbergh’s interest in the project and why he chose Carano to front it. Nothing quite beats the unsophisticated thrill of seeing top-class stunt-actors doing dangerous things as-live and seemingly without a safety net.
Is it too much to expect, though, that a film called Haywire might dare to go a little haywire? With a plot as flimsy as this, and a cast stocked with so many differently charismatic actors, it might have been nice if Haywire had a greater sense of play. As The Informant! and the first Ocean’s film proved, Soderbergh is not immune to gags and whimsy, but genuine playfulness seems outside his remit. But it’s precisely when directing nonsense like this that you need the auteur’s touch: the mischievous sense that the first person to enjoy the film was the person who made it. After all, nobody remembers North By Northwest for the plot.