Haywire looks and feels like someone with a film degree made a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. This is not actually a bad thing. Former MMA fighter Gina Carano has charisma on camera, and is more than capable of dishing out and taking a beating. As a woman, watching her go toe-to-toe with Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Ewan McGregor is a thrill. Being a fan of action movies while being a girl can often feel like there’s never a chance to truly identify with the protagonist. Angelina Jolie’s Salt was a much glossier spy-thriller/action film, but was hampered by the fact that watching the fight sequences required an extreme suspension of disbelief because Jolie looked like any one of her opponents could pick her up and snap her in half. Carano gives the audience solid muscle and an authentic physicality that isn’t compromised by putting on a dress. One of the small costuming details that hit home is that none of the sparingly-seen heels she wears are stilettos, and she doesn’t fight in heels at all.
No, this is not a reinvention of the genre. Lem Dobbs’ script is bare-bones on plot and heavy on scenes with very little dialogue or narrative continuity. Carano, as mercenary Mallory Kane, is a former Marine working for a private contractor to the US Government. The narrative jumps back and forth between present and flashback to show the audience a recounting of where things went wrong for Mallory and why people are trying to kill her. The duplicity of every character but Mallory, is laid out in plain-text for the audience to read. What Soderbergh does to great effect, is mine 1970’s era low-budget caper films for a narrative veneer, while filling in the rest with a spare and evocative score by David Holmes, Carano’s ability to be appealing and natural with cheesy dialogue, a top-notch roster of leading men, and fight sequences that look like they really hurt.
Dropping out everything but ambient (and for the savvy audience, obviously foley-supplied) sound during the fight scenes enhances the guerilla-filmmaking effect. Most of these scenes are able to continue the paper-thin plot’s momentum, but the climactic fights lack oomph. Once you’ve had your heroine strangle Michael Fassbender between her thighs, and bounce around Dublin rooftops, unless you’ve got something truly extraordinary up your sleeve, it’s going to fall short of expectations. Soderbergh has been swinging between the very stylized (Out of Sight, the Ocean’s franchise) and the subversively authentic ( Sex, Lies and Videotape,The Girlfriend Experience) for decades. To be a truly memorable action film, Haywire needed just a touch more of the stylization. In taking the desire for authenticity too far, Soderbergh undercuts the direct subversion of having a leading lady who really can deliver a knockout punch.
Carano is a find, and with a director who isn’t content to leave her carrying an entire film without a net, we may have a brand-new action star on our hands.