The Review: Steven Soderbergh films are like buses; you wait ages, then two come along at once. In some ways they’re actually better than buses, as if there’s one you don’t like the next one will probably be completely different. So it should be no surprise that after last year’s taut but slightly underwhelming Outbreak-remake Contagion Soderbergh has arrived on an entirely different bus, but actually one that left the depot two years ago. (I think I’d better park this bus metaphor now.) The difference between Contagion and Haywire is a prime example of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental and varied nature, but it also means that you can’t guarantee that you’re actually going to like every Soderbergh film. This time, the Soderbergh experiment is to take a female mixed martial arts star and to attempt to make her a movie star; but does this attempt to put the fair fight in My Fair Lady actually work?
A lot of that rests on Carano’s broad but still delicate shoulders. Coming off somewhere between Jet from Gladiators and Cynthia Rothrock, what she lacks in personality and acting ability and more personality she makes up for with a steely glare, a slight grumpiness when asked to wear a dress and an unerring ability to beat the senses out of men twice her size. Sensibly, the story constructed is very much designed to show off the sense-beating, grumpiness and steely glares and minimise the need for personality and acting ability. It’s pretty much a Bourne clone; there’s running, fighting, driving, all in the name of Carano finding something about about the people who she’s fighting, driving past or running away from. The fights themselves have a real physicality and heft about them, and when Carano and Michael Fassbender start laying into each other, it’s verging on cartoon violence and quite satisfying, if you like that kind of thing.
In order to draw attention away from any perceived lack of abilities on Gina Carano’s part, Soderbergh has surrounded her with some of the finest acting and action movie talent known to man. Ewan McGregor sports a dodgy haircut and his usual unlikely American accent and does most of the exposition, and the likes of Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Bill Paxton also pop up in supporting roles. Here lies the first of two major problems with Haywire: the bits in between the running and the fighting are deathly dull, written as if the Enigma machine had turned its hand to screenplays. There’s lots of obtuse references to lots of things which aren’t stated explicitly, and then in the last ten minutes reams of further exposition turn up to make sense of it all. By that point, if you didn’t enjoy the fighting and the running, you may have also stopped caring.
The other drawback of Haywire is that, for all of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental nature, it actually feels about as fresh as a three day old nappy at times. There’s a little Ocean’s meets Bourne feel going on, thanks to David Holmes’ unmistakably trendy, januty score which creates a familiar ambience, but Soderbergh has been experimental so many times, and often much more so than here, that actually the familiarity of the material can breed contempt in the quieter stretches. There’s a great stretch in the middle of the film where Carano goes on the run across Dublin, beating up security guards and running over rooftops, and somehow an extended version of this sequence, stripped of the babbling exposition and filling the short but overstretched run time, might have actually been an improvement. Soderbergh’s talking about taking a sabbatical after his next two films and on this evidence he might need to recharge his batteries, as Haywire’s a lot of fun when its star is handing out violence like it’s going out of fashion, but the rest of the time you’ll wish you had Jason Bourne’s Swiss-cheesed memory, as the non-violent scenes deserve to be forgotten.
Why see it at the cinema: Yay fighty bits! Yay running about on rooftops! The rest might be a little scrambled, but whenever Carano’s kicking butt or running about in pursuit of some other low-life, then you’ll thank yourself that you saw it on a screen that did it justice.
The Score: 6/10
The Review: Personal reminiscence alert! I have now seen four Transformers movies in the cinema. Yes, not only have I seen all three chapters of Bayhem on the big screen, but at the age of eleven I put down my Optimus Prime and my Jetfire and, in the darkness of my best local cinema, watched as my childhood ended in the most ignominious manner possible. But the death of Optimus Prime was nothing to the horror of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen; not enough that you killed off my second favourite Transformer to make spare parts for my favourite, Mr Bay, but you took an original movie which was actually a lot of fun in places and had some enjoyable, if occasionally indecipherable, action and then made an unholy mess of it all – not a single moment of action was in any way clear, entertaining and with a script that veered between the insultingly stupid and the vapidly offensive. But this is Transformers, so of course that won’t put a sizeable audience off attending the third one – as we’ve seen from other franchises, you have to make at least two appallingly bad sequels before you start to alienate your audience.
Well, for the first 100 minutes this does an absolutely perfect job of being that second appallingly bad sequel. Coming into this cold, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a new Coen brothers movie if you just looked at the cast list: Frances McDormand and John Malkovich joining John Turturro. Looking further along the new names you’ll see the likes of Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong and Patrick Dempsey, and you may be forgiven for thinking that this was at least an attempt to offset the action with some quality in the talky bits inbetween. Then you actually watch it, and no matter how bad you expected it to be before you saw it, it manages to be worse. The dialogue and line readings are so bad, that if they were being delivered by your own children in a school play, you would boo them and then drag them off stage, scolding them never to return to acting again. It’s as if someone who hates Coen brothers movies has been asked to make one themselves and given an unlimited array of resources, but with no understanding of nuance or character and no ear for dialogue whatsoever. The only possible explanation is that everyone has been asked to lower their standards to make Rosie Huntington-Whitely not look totally out of place; if that’s the case, it works as she comes off no worse than Megan Fox and isn’t the worst thing on show. Shia LeBeouf also does his bit, having honed his staring-into-the-middle-distance-and-shouting schtick over three movies like a man who’s contemplating how long to leave it before slagging this film off to the press.
The fault of this has to be put squarely at the feet of the director and the writers, not just the actors. The credited writer is Ehren Kruger, who’s been responsible for the likes of horrors like The Ring and Scream 3, and has taken over full duties from previous partners Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who’ve managed to escape to write more Star Trek movies. The quality of the writer isn’t entirely at fault, as Kruger has done good work before, but somehow here fails to get any of it on screen. The script makes no sense either on its own terms or in the context of the first two movies, and at times is so deadeningly terrible that it will make you want to stand up, tearing at your hair and beating your chest while screaming “WHY?” When you compare to one of Bay’s Bruckheimer efforts, The Rock, Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin and Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais all had a hand in tinkering with the script, and while the plot was ludicrous, the dialogue was both quotable and memorable. You have to ask why Bay’s Spielberg efforts haven’t had the same care and attention applied.
And so to Michael Bay himself. Many, if not most directors, employ a second unit director for their action sequences, but Bay might be better served by taking the opposite approach and having someone else come in and direct all of his scenes where giant robot cars aren’t beating seven bells out of each other. Revenge Of The Fallen marked a nadir in terms of Bay’s personal directorial style, where the poor design of the robots and the dust filled settings left it impossible to make out anything actually happening. Buying fully into the 3D approach, and the need to stop editing everything within an inch of his life in order to make the 3D work, actually means that not only can you make out what’s occurring upwards of 80% of the time in the action scenes, much of it is actually enjoyable, and more so even than the original. There are a couple of genuinely breathtaking sequences, not least with Bumblebee transforming at top speed with Sam inside, then outside, and taken on its own terms, the last 40 minutes of the film becomes at least watchable at all times, and Bay manages to keep a sensible rein on the geography of the sequences, if not necessarily on the passage of time. It doesn’t erase the painful memory of what’s gone before, so if you’re planning on going, may I suggest the following approach: put your phone on a vibrating alarm for the 100 minute mark, or just arrive late and sneak in quietly, and enjoy the remainder as some sort of surrealist action nightmare as Chicago is thoroughly trashed.
Why see it at a cinema: From the Cybertronian opening to the last hour, it’s not short of scope and scale – when it wants to – and if you have any interest in seeing this at all, you owe it to yourself to see this on the biggest screen possible.
Why see it in 3D: This is a veritable showcase, and some of the shots are simply stunning. It’s also made a better visual film-maker out of Michael Bay, for which we should all be grateful. Now if only someone could help him with his script and storytelling…
The Score: 4/10 (1/10 for the first hour and a half, and 6/10 for the remainder, rounded up because I’m being generous as it’s Transformers)