Steven Soderbergh is an interesting director. With each film he puts out, the level of scale can vary. Some of his films are wildly independent, featuring unknown actors in minimalistic settings and a lack of narrative boundaries. The rest tend to be big budget exercises in genre and style featuring terrific casts. His latest film, Haywire, is somewhere between. On the outset, it looks like a simple story about a rogue agent (or assassin, depending on her ties) that gets burned by her employer. Said assassin is Mallory Kane, played by the physically daunting Gina Carano, an MMA fighter turned first time actress. As is the case with most of Soderbergh’s work, the narrative shifts joyfully between past and present. The only problem being that the narrative structure chosen by Soderbergh doesn’t really amplify the film by any means. We know Mallory’s betrayal came from her boss Kenneth (a game Ewan McGregor) for possessive reasons, so it seems unnecessary to jumble the timeline. If anything, it serves as a distraction. Nonetheless, Mallory fights through the streets of Dublin and Barcelona to clear her name.
Mallory’s fight for survival and pride is Haywire’s best asset. Where most action films tend to expand the scope of each fight scene, making it as big as possible, Soderbergh takes a step back and capitalizes on Carano’s domineering physicality. Mallory’s battles are typically hand to hand and within the confines of a nondescript location (e.g. a hotel room). Granted, the stage for the fights are small, but considering the number of breakable items found in the environment, each scene represents a sandbox of destruction. From a glass table to an expensive looking vase, everything becomes used in a rib crunching way. Thankfully, the film’s cheesy, distracting score is missing from the action sequences. Instead of relying on a bombastic score to make the action resonate, Soderbergh lets every bruising hit, every malevolent grunt and every broken item occupy the space. Unbridled pain is the only soundtrack that is deserving of these arduous fight scenes. Despite the level of genius found in the fight scenes, the rest of the film is a bore. Carano is merely a physical specimen, and her prowess doesn’t extend itself to genuine acting ability. As for the script, well, outside a clever turn at the end, it’s lacking the necessary bite to counter balance the rollicking fights. Lacking any sense of intrigue or character worth knowing, Soderbergh’s vision for fisticuffs goes awry as he inadvertently directs a hollow action flick.
The Innkeepers (4.25/5):
Standing alone in the horror genre like a buxom teenager being chased in the woods by a catatonic redneck wielding a pick axe is writer/director Ti West. Mr. West has long been a vestige of light emanating from a genre that is growing more and more concerned with half-hearted jump scares and torture porn. Where horror films today can’t wait to get to the unnatural carnage, West is a man who understands more is accomplished with whispers and insinuation than grizzly violence. West’s horror practices are well demonstrated in his underrated occult film The House of the Devil, a slow burning film that pays homage to the horror films of the 80’s and will likely frighten any babysitter. West’s interest in setting the mood is further demonstrated in his latest film The Innkeepers, a throwback attempt to recreate the horror films of the 70’s. Where House of the Devil hopelessly devout followers, The Innkeepers is a ghostly effort that follows two slacker hotel workers interested in exposing the haunted mythology behind their workplace. The two workers, Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), live a humdrum life and are looking for a monumental moment to justify their unassuming life. On the last weekend their hotel is open, they bust out their EVP equipment and get more than they bargained for.
Much like House of the Devil, The Innkeepers begins at a tepid pace with copious amounts of humor. With the setting being a relatively vacant hotel, outside a few questionable guests, Clair and Luke have nothing better to do than discuss ghosts and the mythology behind the dead bride that supposedly haunts the hotel. We experience our leads inactivity and boredom to the point that we are willing to follow them down into that dark cellar. Why not? It’s not like we have anything better to do. Through the use of impeccable sound editing and dynamic blocking, West amps up our ghostly anticipation. Because of this, West forces our hand and makes us believe that each creak in the floor is empirical evidence of an apparition ready to dissect our soul. Mind you, the ending eventually leads to some blood trauma, but much of West’s machinations are subtle touches that fester into moments of true terror. There are certainly moments where The Innkeepers treads closely to self-parody, especially in its intense use of foreshadowing and the ghastly history behind the hotel, but it never waivers from honing in on the finer details of atmosphere and character. Most importantly, West proposes that some questions are better off unanswered because they can only lead to a dead-end.