No stranger to experimentation, be it 2005’s low budget, hi-definition improv piece Bubble or the casting of porn star Sasha Grey in 2010’s The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh has taken a chance on another untested leading lady in MMA star Gina Carano. After spotting Carano’s last fight whilst channel hopping one night, Soderbergh decided to base an entire film around Carano’s physical prowess and the result is Haywire, a simple-yet-effective spy thriller.
The film opens in spectacular fashion, with Carano’s covert operative Mallory Kane and fellow agent Aaron (Channing Tatum) having a brutal fistfight in a roadside diner. The scene immediately establishes the phenomenal physicality and athletic ability of Mallory, as she take everything Aaron can throw at her and still despatches him with relative ease. Mallory escapes in a car with a frightened bystander named Scott (Michael Angarano), who’s main purpose is to serve as a useful device for the script to give us the ‘story so far’ as Mallory fills him in on all the details he needs to know should anything happen to her.
This begins with a shady operation in Barcelona as Mallory and her team (including Aaron) smoothly rescue a hostage. After nailing this operation, Mallory’s boss and former lover Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) sends her on a seemingly routine eye candy assignment in Dublin, partnered with Paul (Michael Fassbender). It soon becomes apparent that the Barcelona job isn’t what it seemed and Paul is there to kill Mallory and frame her. This leads to the films standout scene, a superbly shot and acted hotel room fight scene as Paul jumps Mallory from behind. The pair fight to the death, destroying everything in the hotel room in the process. Like all the key fight scenes in the film, Soderbergh doesn’t employ a score, letting us hear every punch or kick landed. There’s also an absence of the shaky cam and quick editing that’s become commonplace in this kind of film, instead we see everything clearly and it’s an effective technique, giving the fight scenes a sense of hard hitting reality.
The film then jumps back to present day and Mallory’s attempts to clear her name, aided by a smooth top man (Michael Douglas) and her ex-marine father (Bill Paxton). The third act plays out like a video game, with Mallory battling through numerous generic enemies before a climactic showdown with the weaselly Kenneth.
Soderbergh has made no secret that the film’s main purpose is to create amazing fight scenes and build a film around them and in that respect, he has succeeded. The action sequences here are all startling and you can all but feel every crushing blow Mallory inflicts on her male opponents. The plot is just about good enough to carry us from one fight to another, though at times the pacing is questionable. A couple of scenes, notably a chase sequence in Dublin, fall a little flat when they should be among the most thrilling of the movie.
In managing an inexperienced leading lady, Soderbergh also succeeds. Showcasing Carano’s physical attributes and keeping her acting to a minimum is a wise move as her line delivery generally ranges from flat to wooden. Despite these acting shortcomings, Carano’s screen presence and imposing physicality make the performance work, bringing a credibility to it that other female action leads can only dream of.