“I don’t know how to play that – I don’t wear the dress,” says Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), asked by her handler, Kenneth (Ewan MacGregor) to be “eye candy” on a covert operation. At least 20 minutes into the movie, this is the first hint of sincerity from her.
Carano is a real-life mixed martial arts fighting champion, not an actor, as both fans and critics of Haywire rightly point out. But although director Steven Soderbergh is at pains to downplay it – keeping her “doing” instead of “acting” and surrounding this Hollywood first-timer with an A-list male ensemble that would be the envy of any seasoned actress – it shows.
With forebears from Wonder Woman, Buffy and Xena to Angelina Jolie in Salt and Zoe Saldana in Columbiana, the female action heroine has been tending toward the waif lately, so, in Soderbergh’s words, “it would be great to see a woman do this, who could really do it. That could be our contribution to these kinds of movies.”
Unfortunately, his sentiments ignore the whole point of acting and fiction in cinema in favour of the same pseudo-reality gimmick underpinning next month’s Act of Valor (featuring “real active duty U.S. Marines”). And if this were about divorcing female power from sex appeal, it wouldn’t require an MMA fighter with the face of a model.
In Haywire, Kane is a private contractor who does dirty work for the U.S. government until a job in Barcelona with teammate Aaron (Channing Tatum) results in her being framed for murder in Dublin by international intelligence agencies.
Kane’s handler, British agent Paul (Michael Fassbender), U.S. government authority figure Coblenz (Michael Douglas), Dublin contact Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz), Spanish agent Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), and even Aaron are all suddenly potential enemies, occupying the overlapping circles of power newly trained on Kane and intent on her capture.
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Gina Carano, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender
The only person she can trust is her father, John (Bill Paxton), a retired marine and author, who counsels her to do what she has to, which is to follow in Jason Bourne’s footsteps, cracking skulls and taking names until the truth makes itself known.
But the outcome is a lot less cathartic for the audience than for Kane, because the story is simply not compelling. By the time everyone’s motivations are teased out into the open, it is hard to care enough to keep them straight.
What Carano brings to her role is an undeniable physicality that invites comparison to the work of former stuntman Tony Jaa in the Ong Bak series, which features Jaa doing preposterous bodily feats without assistance or artifice. On the acting front, Carano does not embarrass herself, but she is starkly outmatched opposite the likes of Douglas and Banderas.
However, the real culprit is Soderbergh, whose clinical style is ill-suited to action. According to the director, “the trick on any action film [is] to keep people interested during the lulls.” Here they are as boring as ever.
The narrative and even the shooting style and locations feel forced at times, as if Soderbergh is painting by numbers with a checklist of obligatory elements.
When it comes time for a face-to-face with Michael Douglas at an isolated airfield, tumbleweeds passing in the background, the formula works despite itself, if only because it’s Michael Douglas and it looks nice (in a lengthy take, the characters are lit as silhouettes).
But when Mallory has a coastal showdown amid surf crashing onto volcanic rock, it feels more like a hollow echo of something older and more assured (say, the climax to Mission: Impossible II or 1935’s Captain Blood).
Haywire was written by Lem Dobbs, who also penned Soderbergh’s The Limey, featuring a similarly discombobulated timeline. But since the story unfolds in a mostly chronological fashion if you ignore the clumsy framing device of Kane telling her story to a man in a car, the nonlinearity feels like an artless contrivance.
An early action scene in Barcelona is flat-out bad, with ill-fitting music and arbitrary use of hokey black-and-white footage. But from that point on the action finds its footing and offers raw, well-choreographed combat with refreshingly minimal sound effects, more like bar brawls between pro wrestlers than the ubiquitous hyper-stylized melées Hollywood inherited from Hong Kong action cinema.
When Soderbergh applies himself, he makes things fresh: a brief but patiently edited standoff and gunfight in wide shot is a nice change of pace. The ending is another one of the few invigorating elements in a movie that is otherwise unpleasantly overfamiliar. But it is all too little too late to redeem Haywire in its entirety.
If this is an exercise in gender reversal, someone is going to have to point out that action-movie classic in which the male hero thrashes one henchwoman after another from beginning to end.
Now that they’ve done the action heroine thing with 12-year-olds (Hanna, Kick-Ass), switching a chromosome and calling it a day is not nearly enough anymore. Julie Taymor even made Shakespeare’s Prospero a woman. Haywire has plenty of pulse but no raison d’être.