Between Haywire and Steven Soderbergh's last film, Contagion, one could posit that the director is very much in a period of genre exploration. To an extent, he's always been this way. Soderbergh tends to pick up 'typical' Hollywood fare (the heist film, the biopic) and generally finds a way to elevate it just beyond expectations. Yet, Contagion and Haywire feel quite different than the fun, high-kitsch aesthetic of something like the Oceans films. There's a minimalist sleekness to each of them, a spartan nature that reads as an almost clinical dilution of a larger, showier affair. Contagion and Haywire are each essentially B-movies that have been considered, shot, and polished as if they were aspiring for the art house. They lay out their bare-boned roots in such a confident, stylish manner that you dare not say, for example, that Haywire has a lot in common with your average Jason Statham actioner, or that Contagion is just another disaster flick. Something about both films dismisses those ideas as ridiculous, even though they’re really quite true.
Haywire is a film practically custom-built for Gina Carano, a champion MMA fighter who -legend has it- Soderbergh caught on TV and immediately saw as a real-life action heroine. Carano plays Mallory Kane, a highly skilled contracted operative who picks up government jobs deemed too dirty for actual agents. After successfully completing a questionable job in Barcelona, she finds herself double crossed and on the run from her former co-workers. Spy vs. spy, assassin vs. assassin; pretty much a whole lotta dudes trying to take down one very tough lady. While Carano really isn’t much of an actress, all the film really demands of her is what she already has: mad stunt skills and a weirdly magnetic on-screen presence. The rest just isn’t the point, so who cares if she sounds like the computer from Star Trek when she speaks her lines? No one expects real pathos from Schwarzenegger, why ask for it from Carano the killing machine? All she really needs to say is inherent in her irrepressible “I can take you” smirk, and when she’s on screen, particularly during fight sequences, you believe there’s no way anyone could beat her (physically or mentally). Ewan McGregor shouldn’t even try.
Of course, McGregor, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, and –in a weird turn of events – Channing Tatum, pick up the bulk of the dramatic slack here. It is their job to transform our schlocky B-movie into something more elegant than the sum of its parts. They are the Bond girls (and M.) of our Gina Carano combat spectacular, serving as debonair eye candy for our girl with the golden right hook. While all are situated firmly within their supporting roles, they’ve been smartly cast for the glib, sophisticated ferocity of their presence. If they’d been used more, perhaps they could have elevated the film further away from its simplistic plot devices. Instead, Soderbergh chooses to focus his camera and energies on Carano. Depending on your point of view, this is fortunate or unfortunate. There are ways in which the film suffers because of its insistence on devoting so much time to Mallory Kane, and for fans of action films Haywire may read as too quietly designed and acted to truly be gripping. Yet, the grievances are also precisely what make this film stand out. Carano and her character offer girls a more realistic, bad-ass action hero than most and Soderbergh has designed the film’s action sequences in a way that resists the bombastic, abrasive over-editing of others in its genre to give us combat that feels real. Everything in Haywire is possible. While the realm of the real isn’t always where we have the most fun, sometimes it’s really quite refreshing.