MMA star Gina Carano debuts in one lean, mean action machine
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender
Must be nice to be Steven Soderbergh. After kicking off the indie film revolution of the ’90s with sex, lies, and videotape, he went on to helm mainstream hits (Out of Sight, Ocean’s Eleven), Oscar winners (Erin Brockovich, Traffic), existential science-fiction films (Schizopolis, Solaris), micro-budget pay-per-view experiments (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience) and even a TV series or two (“K Street,” “Unscripted”). Few, if any, filmmakers have had the freedom to build such a diverse résumé. Right now, Mr. Soderbergh could be producing and directing Ocean’s Fourteen and no one would be blinking an eye. Instead, he’s off making a low-budget, digital video action flick starring a first-time actor.
For Soderbergh, Haywire is little more than an exercise. Like a great artist testing out a new set of colored pencils, Soderbergh is playing around just to feel things out. His goal this time is to craft a near-minimalist action set piece around famed MMA fighter Gina Carano. Carano’s an attractive woman and an impressive fighter, and it’s not surprising that someone would want to construct a film vehicle for her. A generation ago, however, and it would have been a ridiculous, shot-in-the-Philippines cheapie from Cannon Films (co-starring Michael Dudikoff!). With the minimal emoting she’s asked to do here, it’s hard to judge just how credible an actor Carano really is, but her cool charisma reads just fine on screen.
The story is quick and dirty. The swift script from Lem Dobbs (who wrote Soderbergh’s similarly spare crime drama The Limey) does away with character and plot detail in favor of 93-minutes’ worth of bracing cardio workout. Carano plays Mallory Kane, a super soldier working for a private military contractor not unlike Blackwater. Mallory’s basically a freelance spy, called in to do dirty work when the government is touchy about fronting U.S. soldiers. Tasked by her patently slimy boss (Ewan McGregor) to lead a rescue mission in Spain, Mallory and her teammates (including the still-ubiquitous Channing Tatum) rescue a Japanese journalist from Basque kidnappers. Or something to that effect. In a follow-up mission in Ireland, however, Mallory ends up double-crossed by her higher-ups and nearly killed by handsome-but-nasty Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class). Suddenly, Mallory is branded a traitor and a murderer and must go on the run to save herself.
Of course, if we’ve learned anything from ’80s-era Arnold Schwarzenegger films, it’s that you should never double-cross the badass super soldier. Sure enough, Mallory goes gunning for the villains behind it all, including scummy Ewan McGregor and master manipulator Antonio Banderas. As if that weren’t enough A-list cameos, Michael Douglas swings by as the C.I.A. chief tacitly backing Mallory’s revenge plot against evil government contractors.
The action shifts rapid-fire from Spain to Ireland to some very fancy digs outside Santa Fe (home to Mallory’s spy-novel-penning pop played by Bill Paxton). But the pattern is simple: punch, kick, run, repeat. Carano has got mad skills, and her brutal mixed martial arts style gives the film significant impact. Soderbergh chooses not to lens the film’s action sequences in a flashy, cut-heavy Hollywood way. Instead, he captures them in much the same blunt, down-and-dirty style David Mamet used in his brainy MMA flick Redbelt. Though the film boasts plenty of impressive action sequences, those looking for nonstop ground-and-pound may be underwhelmed. Haywire downplays stylish, over-the-top stunt work in favor of muscular realism. But it’s in the hectic, furniture-smashing flashes of violence (why spout quippy catchphrases when you can just smack someone’s skull into a table?) that Haywire hits its own unique mark.
While it’s hardly a major piece of work from Soderbergh, this shot-on-the-quick digital flick (actually completed before the considerably larger Contagion) is fast and fluid filmmaking. It’s no Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, but it is a savvy pushing of the reset button that strips action movies back to the basics. Instead of emerging from the theater numb and overstimulated, viewers are likely to come out invigorated and eager for a whole new generation of action movie stars and styles.