“Haywire seems hard-wired to elate,” I wrote three months ago in my review of Steven Soderbergh’s fleet-footed action vehicle. Film critics make notoriously lousy box-office soothsayers, but in that regard, Haywire seemed like a no-brainer: a globe-trotting espionage thriller in the Bourne tradition, studded with stars (Ewan McGregor, the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender) and headlined by gorgeous, ass-kicking MMA fighter Gina Carano. What was not to love?
Plenty, apparently. Haywire, which arrives on VOD this week, is more than a flop. It’s an anti-crowd-pleaser, the kind of movie people actively tell their friends not to see. CinemaScore, the market research firm that polls viewers on major theatrical releases, reported a deadly D+ score from test audiences. The bad word of mouth spread like wildfire. Scan the comment sections at Metacritic.com or Entertainment Weekly for a taste of the vitriol ticket buyers expended on Haywire. (“I skipped Underworld for this crap,” quips Lisha at EW.com.)
This isn’t the first time a Soderbergh production has tested poorly with audiences. The director’s 2002 Solaris is one of just six movies to earn an F from CinemaScore voters. But that film is a moody sci-fi mind-bender. Haywire, by contrast, has been built in the style-over-substance mold of the Ocean’s franchise. It was engineered to entertain, which makes the negative viewer reaction all the more perplexing. What, exactly, do audiences find so repellent about this breezy bit of popcorn escapism, which grossed a measly $19 million at the box office?
My hunch is that a lot of it has to do with the woman meting out the beat-downs. As Mallory Kane, a mercenary double-crossed on assignment, Carano performs her stunts with a graceful physicality that looks almost like second nature. What she doesn’t possess, though, is an iota of movie-star confidence. Her line readings are monotone; her chemistry with the other actors is DOA.
Soderbergh looks at Carano and sees a body in motion—the ideal subject for his experiment in reinvigorating the action film. Audiences look at her and see a bad actress. For them, attitude is as important as physical prowess; if it weren’t, Bruce Willis would still be mugging on the small screen. That Soderbergh cast this charisma-free superhuman, who wouldn’t know what to do with a one-liner if she had any, hints at the way his priorities have diverged from those of his target demographic.
Haywire excites critics—this one included—because of the way it refuses to obfuscate its action. The fight scenes, like Carano’s opening scuffle with Channing Tatum or a hotel-room death match with Fassbender, have been staged to maximize our appreciation of the cast’s athletic artistry. The editing is clean and functional, and the music drops out entirely any time hand-to-hand combat commences. The goal is coherence—a virtue that may be lost on a moviegoing public that’s made box-office smashes out of all three Transformers films.
Soderbergh’s movie irks, perhaps, because it strips away the distractions (rapid-fire editing, pounding music, even star power) audiences have come to expect from their genre movies. Rather than giving viewers what they want, the director gives them what he wants: a pure-action exercise built on theoretical principles of “coolness.” Coming from a filmmaker used to playing the one-for-them, one-for-me game—alternating frothy Hollywood entertainments with guerrilla experiments—the deceptively dumb fun of Haywire represents a new line in the sand. These days, they’re all for him.
Haywire arrives on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday 1.