There are a lot of ways that Haywire, the new film by celebrated director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s 11, Traffic), could’ve been marketed to movie audiences. Along with its modern take on James Bond-era spy tales, it’s packed to the brim with intense action sequences and an impressive cast of actors that includes one Oscar winner and multiple A-list thespians.
But the reality is that the driving force behind Haywire‘s appeal isn’t any of those factors. Instead, it’s the director’s choice to cast retired MMA fighter Gina Carano (Blood and Bone) in the film’s lead role–and as the film unfolds, it’s clear how gutsy of a decision that was, and why the final product is a great bit of stick-and-move storytelling.
In Haywire, Carano plays Mallory Kane, a covert operative who freelances with various agencies on missions that need to be kept off the record. After she’s double-crossed on a mission that was supposed to be an easy assignment, she finds herself hunted by the combined forces of government agents and other freelance operatives gunning to take her in and – most likely – silence her forever. Mallory is forced to use all of her skills (including her formidable combat skills, of course) to avoid her pursuers while tracking down the people who betrayed her.
Told using a mixture of flashbacks and straightforward narrative, Haywire kicks off with a scene that not only establishes the overall tone of the movie and its much-heralded action sequences, but also gives audiences some idea of where Carano will fit alongside the more established actors cast in the film.
Round one, fight
Without giving too much away, the opening scene is set in an entirely unremarkable diner in Upstate New York, and offers only the minimum of dialogue from Carano or fellow actor Channing Tatum (Dear John, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), who ends up on the wrong side of Carano’s first on-screen brawl. What the audience does get, however, are lots of lingering, close-up shots of Carano’s face and subtle movements as her character assesses the situation and engages in a somewhat stilted conversation about her predicament.
When the film’s first fight does break out, it’s a savage, brutal encounter that develops in stages, much like a real-world brawl between two closely matched opponents. It’s not presented in a series of quick cuts like most modern fight scenes, but rather in an extended take that follows the two combatants as they grapple, throw, and attempt to outmaneuver each other. There’s little elegance to this brawl – or many of the film’s other fight sequences, for that matter – and Soderbergh’s lens combined with Carano’s natural abilities give the scene a unique feel that manages to make all the early hype for this aspect of the movie seem well-deserved.
That lingering, extended-take style used for the opening scene is used throughout the film, making the narrative feel less like a series of scenes and more like a running feed of Mallory’s adventure, whether she’s chasing bad guys, fleeing police, or trading punches.
And while it’s no surprise that the fight scenes are handled well both behind the camera and in front of it, there’s something to be said for the tone Carano strikes simply by being the focus of the film. At a time when we’re expected to believe that waifish actresses like Zoe Saldana and Angelina Jolie can send a 200-pound man flying with a single punch, there’s an amazing sense of satisfaction gained from seeing Carano go fist-to-skull with the conviction of someone who’s done it before and knows the laws of physics we operate by in the real world.
On a related note, it feels a like a no-brainer to suggest that Carano’s brawl with Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Shame) midway through the film is one of the best fight scenes to hit the big screen in years.
The weigh in
Still, it takes more than impressive fight choreography to make a good movie, and while Haywire‘s plot gets a bit convoluted at times with all its double- and triple-crossing characters, there’s an intriguing story to be found amid all of the brawls, chases, and spy-movie tropes. Soderbergh clearly knew what he was doing in assembling the movie’s cast, and the interaction between top-level agents played by Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, and Antonio Banderas keeps things honest and compelling, and prevents the film from becoming just a series of cool fight sequences.
However, it’s in that same area where Carano’s limitations show through, as she has a tough time holding her own in scenes that have her trading dialogue with the likes of more accomplished actors like Fassbender or Douglas. Her delivery occasionally veers into line-reading territory, though in her defense, this could also be a result of Soderbergh’s decision to dub portions of her dialogue. Nevertheless, she’s clearly more comfortable operating as a lone wolf in front of the camera, and manages to show a decent range of acting chops when she’s not operating from within anyone else’s shadow.
Early in this review, I described Haywire as stick-and-move filmmaking, and the fighting metaphor seems entirely appropriate given the film’s affinity for interspersing the beautifully shot (and acted) fight scenes with cleverly filmed chases or scenes featuring Douglas, Banderas, or the other veteran dramatic actors trading tense dialogue. Like a good fighter, Haywire captures your attention and keeps you busy tracking its movement, only to suddenly lash out with a hard jab every time you start to guess where it’s headed.
While it’s not likely to be counted among the year’s best films, Haywire manages to live up to the massive amounts of buzz surrounding it while making a case for itself as one of the best action movies to the hit theaters in recent years. What’s more, in answering the big question that everyone has about the film, both Soderbergh and Carano should feel vindicated about the latter’s presence – and performance – in Haywire, as the former MMA brawler does a great job of showing the world she can dominate a film with as much skill as she dominates her opponents in the ring.