Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Michael Angarano, Bill Paxton
Steven Soderbergh is an interesting throwback to directors of yore, in that he is far less precious with his career than many of his contemporaries, and seems to regard the medium of film as inherently a place to explore, and play around. This means not only that he’s rather astonishingly prolific, but also engages in willful genre experiments (the “Ocean’s” trilogy, certainly, as well as something like “Solaris,” and even “Contagion”), plus low-fi adventures like “Full Frontal,” “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experiment.” Rather than own one genre or mood, Soderbergh lets them intermittently possess him, all while putting his own stamp of personality on narrative material.
His latest film, “Haywire,” is more of the mindset of the former, but also exhibits some of the seat-of-the-pants inclinations of some of the latter, aforementioned DIY productions. It’s an action movie, at once lithe and bruising, but also a sort of character piece chess game, in which the personalities of the participants and the stylishness of its telling matter more than its junky, familiar, high-calorie revenge plot. While recognizable faces abound, the movie (which officially debuted Sunday night at a special “secret screening” at AFI Fest presented by Audi, and will see mainstream release early next year) is built around MMA fighter Gina Carano — an acting non-professional, like some of the other stars of Soderbergh’s more experimental fare.
The story centers on and runs through Mallory Kane (Carano), a highly trained operative who works for a government security contractor in hot spots all over the world, taking part in missions where plausible deniability is as much of a plus as guaranteed success rate. She’s a professional ghost, basically — a pre-amnesiac Jason Bourne. After freeing a Chinese journalist in Dublin, though, she’s double-crossed and left for dead. Naturally, this does not sit very well with Mallory, so she sets out trying to work her way back into the United States, while her boss (Ewan McGregor) first dispatches old colleagues (Channing Tatum) and then gets his own hands dirty trying to bring her down.
Carano, who resembles a cross between maybe Danica Patrick and “Sober House”‘s Jennifer Gimenez, is kind of thick and attractive at the same time, and her ample frame leaves no doubt as to who has the advantage in her many scenes with fisticuffs. Though an acting neophyte, Carano does also possess a steely tomboy charm, which, along with an aptitude for stillness, Soderbergh exploits to solid effect. The story, though, does Carano no grand favors, and sometimes places her in scenarios where her natural physical gifts are secondary to some bit of plotting or gamesmanship. The screenplay, written by Soderbergh’s collaborator on “The Limey,” Lem Dobbs, awkwardly employs a flashback structure in which Mallory relates past events to a guy (Michael Angarano) whose car she has escaped in. Straight flashbacks would have worked best, requiring less tricky emotional interaction from Carano.
Still, what “Haywire” most has going for it is its litany of engaging supporting players (including Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender and Bill Paxton, all dialed in), and a bunch of nice fight scenes that eschew CGI in favor of hand-to-hand thrashing. Most of these sequences — especially a hotel room destruction with Fassbender and Carano, the film’s piece de resistance — are captivating and rousing; only a penultimate beach confrontation highlights Soderbergh’s relative inexperience with action staging and editing. Told with verve and panache, though, “Haywire” benefits from a slick score by David Holmes, with whom Soderbergh has worked on the “Ocean’s” movies, and the sense that the heroic actions of its heroine maybe aren’t that far removed from the realm of possibility. If mainstream audiences make the movie a commercial hit, Angelina Jolie will have to watch her back, because she’ll have some new company in the realm of female action stars.
NOTE: Relativity Media will release “Haywire” in theaters on January 20, 2012.
Written by: Brent Simon