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There will probably never be a movie that successfully combines intense physical combat with an art film aesthetic, but Haywire comes pretty close. That’s not to say that the movie is pretentious. Far from it, this is probably Steven Soderbergh’s most conventional movie in years and no screen time is wasted in setting up and paying off the hardboiled payback narrative. However, it also boasts the director’s detached style, his affinity for non-chronological storytelling, and a cool funky score from David Holmes that couldn’t be farther removed from the manipulative pulse-raising music we’re used to in the genre.
It’s a movie that will make film snobs smirk at seeing an art house director play in a populous sandbox, but also a hard-hitting action flick that should make the popcorn crowd cheer. Haywire is probably one of the best pure action movies to emerge out of Hollywood in the last few years and hopefully it’ll be a hit. It would be nice if suddenly an idiosyncratic director like Soderbergh were handed the keys to a blockbuster. I’m not holding my breath, but it would be nice.
Even though Soderbergh’s fingerprints are all over Haywire, the movie really belongs to star Gina Carano. You’re probably thinking, “who?” and that’s fair. She’s never really acted before. The story goes that Soderbergh was channel surfing one night and stumbled onto one of Carano’s MMA fights. He was immediately taken by her and decided to build a movie around her. Mere minutes into Haywire, it’s easy to see why. Carano is a fighting force of nature, doing all of her own stunts and kicking ass in a league with the cast of The Expendables. Yet, she’s also beautiful with the natural on camera charisma of a Hollywood starlet. The girl is an action star and Haywire is ideally suited to her talents. Wisely, Soderbergh doesn’t force her to stretch too much as an actress in her first role. She’s plays a steely silent type who lets her fists do the talking and they have quite a vocabulary. I doubt she’s suddenly going to be making a run at an Oscar any time soon, but Soderbergh surrounds her with a cast of stars and she more than holds her own onscreen.
Carano plays Mallory, a woman trained in the ways of ass kicking and espionage by the military and now works as a private contractor hired to secretly do the government’s dirty work. Through a twisty, flashback heavy narrative we learn that Mallory was sent out by her boss and former lover (Ewen McGregor) to do a mysterious job in Barcelona with potentially devious consequences. After that she’s sent out again as arm candy for a British spy (Michael Fassbender) only to learn that gig was secretly meant to be a hit on her. Big mistake. Soon she’s cracking skulls all the way back to her boss for a little slice of revenge. Simple stuff, but it works.
Haywire is certainly a globe trotting action romp, but clearly doesn’t have the budget of the comic book action epics that audiences have become accustomed to. You won’t see cars flipping over each other or entire cities laid to waste. However, you thankfully won’t be stuck watching much CGI animated fakery either. There are a buttload of fights in Haywire and all of them are pulled off physically and with few cuts. Fighting was obviously Carano’s main strength going into the project and Soderbergh dreamed up some pretty spectacular choreographed fights for her to dig into and films them in wide shots so that you can see all of her bone-crunching skill. The likes of Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Ewan McGregor get in on the action with Carano and all of them deliver the goods. Though this movie plays on a much smaller scale that most contemporary action films, the physicality of the fight scenes and the simple, clear manner in which they are shot is actually more exciting than a shakeycam, over-edited set piece on a grander scale. Actually seeing humans do this stuff instead of a computer simulation is always more exciting and applause following some fight scenes might not be uncommon in the theaters.
While the story is very simple, Soderbergh complicates it through a fractured narrative and imbues it with the neo-noir cool of his film The Limey (which shared the same screenwriter Lem Dobbs). You may have seen it all before, but rarely done this well or performed by a cast of this caliber. With actors like Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Bill Paxton showing up in small roles, every character is compelling and fairly fleshed out. Haywire is a small and tight little entertainment machine that does exactly what it sets out to do and gets the job done without threatening to test the audience’s patience. The typically high-minded Soderbergh may never have been on anyone’s radar as an action director, but he proved to be pretty damn good at it and delivered easily his most mainstream work outside of the Ocean’s Eleven series. Hopefully it’s a hit. The guy deserves it and audiences deserve to see more action flicks like this. Haywire is one action movie I’d actually like to get a sequel to. Let’s make it happen people.