“Haywire”, the new action movie from director Steven Soderbergh, has a serious direct-to-video vibe. But it’s like the classiest DTV movie you’ve ever seen. Not only is the cast so far over the head of this style of film—not many straight up action flicks feature names the size of Ewan McGregor, Michel Douglas, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas, some, but not many—but Soderbergh’s hand is readily apparent. He adds many of his trademark visual and structural flourishes to spruce up the joint. “Haywire” is full of recognizable color and musical themes, a narrative that jumps around in time, tricky camera moves and angles, intricate depth of frame, even down to a planning montage that is reminiscent of his “Ocean’s” movies. “Haywire” isn’t going to blow your mind hole, or make you think too hard about important issues, but, especially given the massive delays in getting a release (Soderbergh was able to shoot and unleash “Contagion” before “Haywire” would ever see the light of day), it is a solid revenge-tinged actioner, full of kick ass brawls, chases, and a sly, self-deprecating sense of humor.
Mixed martial arts superstar Gina Carano, often referred to as “the face of women’s MMA” (also, she was an American Gladiator), is Mallory Kane, a highly skilled private contractor. She’s not the kind of contractor you call to fix your roof or when a decayed pipe bursts in your wall, however. If you need a particularly difficult mission—like a dangerous rescue in Barcelona—executed with the utmost care, you enlist her services. A professional athlete doing a turn on silver screen is a tricky proposition. Carano’s acting chops are untested, to say the least, but Soderbergh handles it well. Basically he doesn’t let her talk much, and hits her with a lot of things, like coffee mugs, trays of dirty dishes, and fists and feet. When she does speak it is brief, and the majority of her longer exchanges are with Channing Tatum, so they’re on a relatively even playing field craft wise. She wears a grim scowl for most of her screen time, or does what she does best; beat the living hell out of people. I don’t know if she’s ever going to be a great thespian, but if she wants it Carano definitely has a future in DTV action. She could be a modern day Cynthia Rothrock.
The plentiful fight scenes in “Haywire” are brutal, and while definitely stylized, it is the gritty realism of the staging that sets them apart. That’s what you get when you put a tool like Carano, who is way more believable as a badass mercenary than say Angelina Jolie, in the hands of a skilled filmatist like Soderbergh. There is no honor in these throwdowns, survival is the one and only goal, and the participants aren’t above a sucker punch or dirty trick now and again. Fans of screen fights will love the sheer number of times Carano bludgeons someone in the skull with an economical but effective roundhouse kick.
Mallory works for Kenneth (McGregor), who must not be much of a businessman because his company is in dire financial straights, his resources are stretched razor thin, and to top it all off, his best asset, Mallory, is about to quit. Against her better judgment she agrees to go on one last mission, “like a paid holiday”, and Kenneth betrays her, setting her up and leaving her for dead. Standard revenge fare to be sure, but Soderbergh and “The Limey” screenwriter Lem Dobbs, do enough to keep the story from becoming too stale. Twists aren’t anything game changing, but there are enough curves in the road to keep things interesting. Just when you’re about to get that been-there-done-that feeling, Soderbergh pulls a little trick out of his hat to catch your eye, or they simply throw in another fight or a rooftop chase. Few things generate forgiveness like watching Gina Carano choke a dude out and shoot him in the face.
At times “Haywire” feels very much like a heist movie, especially in the way the characters plan an early mission. There is an overall aesthetic to the film that harkens back to 70s crime films, most notably a slew of Italian genre entries, especially the work of Enzo G. Castellari (“Street Law” and “The Heroin Busters” spring readily to mind). Visually, “Haywire” has a very specific look from that bygone era, and every time there is a shot of Mallory running while a funky, up-tempo, bass-heavy combo plays over the action (and there is a lot of that) you’ll be reminded of those influences.
“Haywire” is well aware of what kind of movie it is. It isn’t cloying and annoyingly self-aware, characters don’t comment that they’re in a movie, but the film does have a sense of humor about itself. The first part of the film is framed by Mallory, in what can only be described as heavy handed exposition, telling her story to Scott (Michael Angarano), a young kid she carjacks. When she tells him about being a private contractor, he asks, “That’s actually real?” And after she dumps even more generic action movie information on him, he says, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
There are a few more slight indicators like these sprinkled throughout, enough to let you know that “Haywire” doesn’t think it is anything greater than what it is. If not for the clout of the people involved, this never would have seen a theatrical release. Sure there are artistic embellishments, but there is no attempt to turn this into high art. “Haywire” is a badass action film with big name cast, and that is exactly what it wants to be. It is fun, doesn’t waste any time with unnecessary details, and is more about kicking ass than anything else. And at the end of the day, that’s all I really want out of a movie.
Steven Soderbergh (director)/Lem Dobbs (writer)
CAST: Gina Carano…Mallory Kane
Bill Paxton…Mallory’s Dad