The absolute worst thing you could say about Steven Soderbergh’s latest film is that its lead, Gina Carano, is consistently out-acted by Channing Tatum. On its surface and for obvious reasons that’s a pretty damning statement.
But when viewed as a whole performer instead of just an actress you quickly realize that Carano has a very particular set of other skills. Skills she has acquired over a
very long career. Skills that make her a nightmare for people like Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and other male stars with recognizably pretty faces.
A nightmare for them, but entertaining as hell for the rest of us.
We first meet Mallory Kane (Carano) sitting in the snow as she monitors a small, Upstate New York diner. She eventually heads in and meets Aaron (Tatum) for a short and cryptic chat, but mid-sentence he throws a cup of hot coffee in her face, slams her into the counter and proceeds to pummel her with his fists.
The poor guy doesn’t even realize he’s already lost the fight.
Mallory makes her escape with the aid of a young man (Michael Angarano) and fills both him and the audience in on what brought her to this point. She’s an ex-Marine and mercenary of sorts under the employ of an ex-boyfriend named Kenneth (McGregor) who contracts odd and dangerous jobs with powerful men in high places (including Michael Douglas and Antonio Bandaras). Flashbacks reveal that her most recent job in Barcelona began as a simple extraction but ended with her being charged with murder and hunted by both sides of the law.
She’s been double-crossed and set-up and is now forced to run and fight back if she wants to prove her innocence… blah blah blah. We’ve seen this story before, and plot-wise director Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire brings nothing new to the table. The destination is clear, we have a pretty good idea of who’s to blame and what’s going to happen, and none of it is going to be very surprising. Lem Dobbs’ script keeps things simple and generic (even if it does occasionally become far more convoluted than necessary), and it wouldn’t feel out of place in a direct-to-DVD title starring Dolph Lundgren or Steven Seagal.
Except this action isn’t about one-liners and old men desperately clinging to their youth. This is about the birth of a brand new action star. Better still, Carano is a believable female action star which is something that has previously only existed in Asian flavors. Until now, Hollywood’s version consisted of bony-ass actresses like Angelina Jolie or Zoe Saldana who look good shooting guns and taking PG-13 rated showers but never for one second felt convincing as ass-kickers.
A punch or kick from Carano looks and feels like it has real weight and power behind it, and the impact is a visible and visceral experience for the audience as well as for the poor guys onscreen. There’s plenty of running and gunning in the film, but the highlights are several one on one fights between her and her male co-stars. They’re quite possibly the best looking Hollywood fisticuffs since the Bourne films, but Soderbergh even one-ups Paul Greengrass by showing the combat in wide shots instead of tightly edited exchanges. He also chose to let the fights play out without a score, so the only sounds are those of grunts, groans and breaking furniture. The fight between Carano and Fassbender in particular is a brilliantly executed back and forth that bruises the screen with its intensity and ferocity.
It doesn’t hurt that Carano is an attractive woman even when she’s not wrapping her thighs around your neck. She resembles a less forgiving Rachel Weisz, which is its own particular brand of sexy, and carries herself with confidence whether she’s standing still or kicking ass. Her acting can only improve however as her delivery is consistently flat, and she works too noticeably hard on mannerisms and expressions that should appear effortless.
The rest of the films’ actors all give fun and lively performances, and it’s clear they’re having a good time with the roles. (Fassbender and McGregor share a scene at a table, and given both men’s penile reputations it’s no surprise that our own Robert Fure has wondered aloud at the potential swordplay just below frame.) The film is slickly shot as it moves through various European and American locations and consistently looks good, and it moves a solid pace that never sits still for too long. It’s mostly well-crafted action beats broken up with exposition, but Soderbergh does manage some exciting set-pieces that don’t rely on fighting for their appeal including a menacing three block walk done in real time and a subsequent roof chase.
Haywire basically exists as a demo reel for Carano’s fighting skills and charisma and a promise of what her cinematic future may hold. Surrounded by a cadre of talented, well known actors she stands out as the weak link, but unleash her on them and she quickly becomes a mesmerizing blur of action, bad hats and leg locks deserving of even bigger and better exploits. Bring on Haywire 2 I say… even if it does mean she’ll also get sucked into The Expendables 3.
The Upside: Gina Carano is an action star; hand to hand fights are exciting and beautifully choreographed; fantastic cast getting the crap kicked out of them; oddly but enjoyably paced; score-less fights are wonderfully effective
The Downside: Gina Carano is not an actress; more convoluted than necessary; little too generic at times; not enough Bill Paxton
On the Side: The film’s original title was the even more generic-sounding Knockout.