A welcomed change of pace after the overwhelming dread of 2011′s superb Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh is having a bit of fun with Haywire. It’s not a smart film, but it’s a smartly crafted film. The care and attention that went into making what works in Haywire actually work, is apparent. Meticulously shot, competently directed, beautifully scored and carefully acted – you can’t ask much more out of a piece like this than what Haywire provides.

It feels like Soderbergh took a Dr. Frankenstein approach here. The film is pulled together from several points of inspiration. The score has all the cheekiness of a 60′s British (non-Bond) spy adventure. The dialogue scenes are classic Out of Sight-era Soderbergh – slow burn of under-the-surface emotionality accentuated with lingering shots and tight cinematography. The fight sequences, the main reason Haywire is such a crowd-pleaser, have all of the subtlety of 90′s-era action films the likes of which haven’t been seen in theaters since Seagal and Van Damme faded into direct-to-video obscurity (for a time anyway).

Indeed, Haywire‘s action sequences and general plotline feel eerily similar to the output of Seagal’s golden era (a loose term if there ever was one). Though I never remember sitting in a theater wanting to kiss Steven Seagal.

Enter Gina Carano: newcomer actress as well as once and future mixed-martial-arts extraordinaire. She’s undoubtedly the wildcard here and I love that Soderbergh saw fit to cast her as Mallory Kane, a spy on the run and the film’s lead. Not to knock some of Hollywood’s leading ladies, but this film becomes less interesting with Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, or any number of other name actors in the role. There’s a danger to Carano in this, a mystery in her eyes, and it has everything to do with the fact that we don’t know her or what she’s capable of by extension.

They will not be this chummy by evening's end.

The film itself could not be more straightforward. Mallory is a freelance opertative working for a company run by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), a man she’s had a romantic entanglement with in the past. A rescue mission in Barcelona takes a wrong turn and when Mallory is sent headfirst into a job in Dublin you get the sense that something’s afoot. It’s not long before Mallory’s agency wants her dead and she’s run out of people to trust. With her father’s help, Mallory tries to enact some revenge on Kenneth and secure her safety with help from the government (represented here by the healthy and spry-looking Michael Douglas). Yes there’s a central mystery behind it all, but you can telegraph the end result from the beginning. Haywire‘s not concerned with complexities, it’s concerned with bone-crunching – and sexy bone-crunching at that.

Gina Carano moves and fights like a woman that can kick a lot of ass, and the fight choreography in this film is top notch. From the first fight with Channing Tatum all the way to that final confrontation on a beach, Mallory Kane is giving way more punishment than she’s taking. The fight sequence between her and Fassbender, the best in the film, is a wince-inducing exercise in bone-breaking, glass-shattering fisticuffs. And I was enraptured with every second of it. Soderbergh and cinematographer Peter Andrews pull the camera back in these sequences and show everything. We’re made to believe that every punch, kick or chokehold could potentially deliver a killing blow. The fights themselves tell a story. It’s the antithesis of the modern American school of shooting action, and it couldn’t be more refreshing.

Then again, maybe they will.

The cinematography works in tandem with David Holme’s playful score, lending the film a look and heightening it’s style without oversaturation. All these different elements are coming together to create something unique from familiar elements. It all hinges on the players on screen however, and thankfully they bring it.

I’m not looking forward to the onslaught of speculative articles crowning Gina Carano as the frontrunner for Wonder Woman* (a character in the film even refers to her as such). But the connection is appropo, if not annoyingly apparent. But I like her in Haywire, a lot actually. And I like her chances as a full-fledged movie star as well. The striking beauty brings a cold, collected, simmering intensity to what is, aside from the mesmirizing physicality, an otherwise unremarkable performance. There’s not a lot asked of her here. But considering the fact that she carries the picture and more than holds her own in scenes with Fassbender, McGregor and Douglas, I see the potential. Soderbergh wouldn’t have cast her if he didn’t see something as well, and it’s apparent on screen. Carano gives off a vibe of calculated disconnect to the role, akin to Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction. She will certainly be offered more roles, and if it’s longevity she cares about she’ll steer clear of the Haywire clones that will paint her into a box.

It’s no surprise that the other above-mentioned actors deliver the goods as well. McGregor brings a great aloofness to his Kenneth while you’re never sure which side of the fence Douglas will fall. Michael Fassbender is having a hotstreak for the record books as far as supporting roles go. That continues here. And Antonio Banderas and Bill fucking Paxton show up as well to bring their regular, albeit brief, charms. And wouldn’t you know it, Channing Tatum gives the best performance in his career. That’s not saying a lot considering his filmography, but there’s a confidence and ease here that I haven’t seen him display before. Another actor that Soderbergh sees something in, I dare say I’m looking forward to seeing what they accomplish together in Magic Mike.

Mallory's enemies have a habit of falling onto bullets.

Haywire is such an intense joyride in the first two-thirds that it suffers from some deflation towards the end. But it’s never enough to take away from the fun of the picture as a whole. Between this and Contagion, I sense a reinvigorated Steven Soderbergh behind the camera – one who’s managed to find a balance between his storytelling strengths and the risks that excite him as a filmmaker. I enjoyed the hell out of Haywire, and I suspect I’ll be doing so for a long time to come.

*Few non-films have ever shared the rampant speculation that has gone into fancasting this character on film.

 

Rating: 
★★★★

Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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