When arty directors make genre films, sometimes they do it for the money. Sometimes they do it for fun. And sometimes they do it to find out how much they can warp the conventions of a given genre and still sell it as routine entertainment.
When Steven Soderbergh isn’t making four-hour films about Che Guevara, he’s big into that kind of experimentation. How else to explain The Informant!, a story of Clinton-era industrial espionage shot and scored like a Johnson-era comic romp? Or Contagion, a disaster movie where the ostensible heroes were as likely to drop dead as the extras?
Like those films, Soderbergh’s latest, Haywire, appears to be built on sly what-ifs. What if I made an action film about a female secret agent who looked strong enough to hold her own in a fight? What if that fight was choreographed and shot so that you could follow what was happening? What if, afterward, the heroine sported actual bruises? What if I spaced out the action with long, tense setup scenes? Would audiences still eat it up?
The answer, it appears, is no. Moviegoers gave Haywire a wretched D+ on CinemaScore and flocked to the latest Underworld movie to watch a skinny actress kicking nonstop ass. But for those who are less enchanted with that formula, Haywire is a visually stimulating and refreshingly different ride. Taken on its own terms, as a stylistic dare, it’s good fun. Just don’t expect tons of character development or emotional impact.
Star Gina Carano, a former top-ranked mixed-martial-arts fighter, doesn’t have the acting chops to deliver much of either. But as ex-Marine Mallory Kane, she delivers punches and roundhouse kicks with immense aplomb. A covert agent for a private contractor, Mallory is not a girly-girl. “I don’t wear the dress,” she snaps at her employer and ex-lover (Ewan McGregor) when he proposes a job that involves her posing as the wife of an Irish agent (Michael Fassbender).
The film opens in the aftermath of that job, with Mallory arriving in rural upstate New York for a meeting with an associate (Channing Tatum) to discuss how things went wrong. Soon she finds herself on the run with a terrified civilian (Michael Angarano), to whom she tells her tale, setting the stage for long flashbacks set in Dublin and Barcelona.
Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs (The Limey) do what they can to keep the audience off kilter: When McGregor sets up Mallory’s mission with a government agent (Michael Douglas), we see only inconclusive fragments of their conversation. When Mallory rescues a hostage in Barcelona, Soderbergh lowers the sound and keeps the camera swinging like a nervous surveillance operative. When it’s time for hand-to-hand combat, though, he holds it still and lets us watch, bucking the trend set by the Bourne films. The fights are visceral, even brutal; Soderbergh doesn’t dance around the difficulty of a woman — even a burly one — choking or knocking out a guy the size of Tatum or Fassbender.
He does dance around Carano’s acting limitations, mainly by making Mallory a woman of great focus and amusingly few words. (A favorite moment: When Angarano laments that she’s wrecking his new car with her stunt driving, she mutters a chagrined “Well...” and returns her attention to the road.) The film has bits that border on camp, and the plot, once elucidated, doesn’t entirely hold water. A climactic scene at the home of Mallory’s dad (Bill Paxton) seems more like an excuse to shoot an astounding New Mexico locale than a satisfying finale.
In short, Haywire doesn’t revolutionize the action thriller. But it does riff on its conventions enough to entertain anybody who’s ever wished a movie fight were more like a fight and less like a deafening ballet.