Moving away from the feature-length hand sanitizer commercial that was this year’s Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh returns to the screen with another one of his trademark all-star cast outings, but one with significantly more ass-kicking delivered at the hands (and feet) of a particularly-picked leading lady. In Haywire, Soderbergh lets loose cinematic newcomer Gina Carano, a real-life MMA fighter who can more than hold her own with the boys club that rounds out the film’s cast (including Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Bill Paxton). Packaged as a double-crossing spy thriller, Haywire is big on impressive and crowd-pleasing fight scenes, but the film fizzles when it comes to delivering a particularly clever story for all those flying fists to play out against.
The meat of Haywire’s plot is just a standard double-cross story that’s pumped up with the sort of stylistic flash and flair that Soderbergh can deliver handily. Carano plays a highly skilled ex-Marine who now works in the “private sector” on black ops jobs that involves messy endeavors like extraction and assassination. Carano’s Mallory Kane is very good at her job, good enough that she’s often a special request (an “essential element”) for a number of her company’s various contracts, a fact that irks her boss and ex-flame Kenneth (McGregor). Mallory is dispatched for an extraction job in Barcelona that goes well enough, but her performance there directly leads into her next job, a gig that’s ostensibly presented as glorified babysitting, done in tandem with a new partner, Fassbender’s smooth-talking Paul. But this second job, inventively placed in the cinematically underused city of Dublin, is not what it seems, and Mallory comes to understand that she’s been double-crossed and sold out. Cue those aforementioned flying fists.
Make no mistake, Haywire is a revenge story, and Carano is not the sort of woman you’d ever want to come after you due to a personal vendetta. Her background in MMA lends a hefty veracity to Haywire’s copious fight scenes. The word “ass-kicking” will be inevitably thrown around with regards to Carano’s work here, but it’s really the most apt term. Mallory will kick your ass, and Carano will deliver a punch and a kick and a bone-breaking that feels much more real than most everything else in Haywire’s cinematic league that’s been released so far this year. Real Steel has never felt less real than after a Haywire viewing.
But while Carano’s performance, all fighting aside, benefits from her expressive eyes and apparent eagerness in the role, her line delivery runs the gamut between wooden and plain laughable. Soderbergh picked Carano to lead the all-star cast of Haywire because she’s a fighter and the role required it, but surrounding her with a bevy of talented and experienced actors doesn’t help mask her unease in front of the camera when she’s not kicking someone’s ass, it only magnifies it exponentially. As distracting as Carano’s first crack at leading lady work is, when she’s put in a situation that relies on her physical power (such as in the film’s best sequence – an extended foot chase through the streets and roofs of Dublin), it’s easy to see why Soderbergh wanted to build an actioner around her.
Soderbergh again employs David Holmes for Haywire’s original music, and Holmes’ particular brand of sound and score make the film frequently feel like a sister to their previous collaborations, namely the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. Though Haywire may be billed as a tough-talking spy flick, Soderbergh and Holmes’ use of frenetic and often playful percussion, booming bass, and stylized strings dilutes the film’s drama in some key scenes. Occasionally, however, Holmes’ score adds a level of friskiness to the film that only amps up its built-to-please sensibilities, making Haywire a damn hard film to not have some real fun with.
But though Haywire is very much the sort of slick, sassy Soderbergh we’ve come to expect from the prolific director, it’s bogged down with a poor sense of story development and some less-than-clever plotting conceits. There are a few too many happy accidents in Haywire – a taxi that’s in the right place at the right time, an off-handedly grabbed umbrella that slows a pursuer, an unexpected ally – that make screenwriter Lem Dobbs’ work look messy and that will make audiences wish for the smarter scripts of the first two Ocean’s Eleven films. Mallory tells us early on that she doesn’t like loose ends, but Haywire leaves enough of them dangling that they linger like the bruised business end of right hook.
The Upside: Unparalleled fight scenes, trademark Soderbergh style and pop, an ass-kicking leading lady who can actually kick ass.
The Downside: Weak storytelling and development make it hard to care about characters or any deeper meanings the film might be trying to convey.
On the Side: The fight scenes ramp up over the course of the film, making the last one the roughest, tumbliest, and most bone-crunchy of all.