Movie review by Greg Carlson
Frustratingly coy and belligerently reductivist, Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire” cooks up a story that plays to the strengths of mixed martial artist/American Gladiator Gina Carano. Parallel to the employment of Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience,” Soderbergh’s selection of Carano in the lead role laces his movie with a sense of expectation based on the occupational history of the performer. And while Carano’s abilities to scissor-lock her thighs around the necks of her hapless adversaries invites a certain measure of respect, the actor is devoid of the necessary skills to suggest any spark of self-reflection (talk of significant post-production voice replacement doesn’t help). Instead, Carano’s deadly agent Mallory Kane glides perpetually forward like the doll-eyed shark in “Jaws,” efficiently devouring anything unlucky enough to cross her path.
Employing the same disregard for dot connection demonstrated by Howard Hawks in “The Big Sleep,” but without the playfulness and double entendre, Soderbergh rigs Kane’s trials to a foggy chain of double-crosses traced to a fishy rescue/hostage extraction in Barcelona, which is constantly referenced with the equivalent of a wink or arched eyebrow. Unsurprisingly, Kane’s cohort of puppet masters and fellow operatives are all men, but the film’s cool detachment resists most every opportunity to explore the contours of gender beyond the protagonist’s ability to outlast her adversaries. With the exception of a few goggle-eyed reaction shots of Michael Angarano’s incredulous audience surrogate – who chivalrously steps into the middle of a bone-crunching diner takedown that opens the film – only the presence of Bill Paxton as Kane’s retired Marine Corps father adds a much-needed human touch to the story.
All the other men in Mallory’s life prove to be shifty, manipulative, deceitful, or murderous, and often all of those things at once. Ewan McGregor’s heartless Kenneth, a private black-ops contractor and onetime lover of Kane, hires Michael Fassbender’s Paul to eliminate her. Michael Douglas’ Coblenz and Antonio Banderas’ Rodrigo learn not to underestimate her. Even Channing Tatum’s kiss-or-kill Aaron seems confused about his emotional allegiance. Through it all, Kane kicks and punches first and asks questions later, not unlike cinematic inspirations James Bond and Jason Bourne.
Soderbergh, handling photography duties again under his pseudonym Peter Andrews, demonstrates considerable talent in the framing of the movie’s multiple set pieces. A fleet Dublin rooftop chase shows off the city with a dazzling command of spatial logic (location manager Peter Conway’s staff spent months getting permission from the owners of each building). A tense car chase ends unexpectedly with an example of Soderbergh’s dry wit. Most of the hand-to-hand combat scenes unfold with the sort of impressive, whole body wide shots favored by Fred Astaire, especially the destruction of a ritzy hotel suite during a breathless duet between Carano and the beautiful Fassbender.
“Haywire” often flirts with self-parody, and David Holmes’ exploitation throwback score makes you keep looking for Fred Williamson or Pam Grier to show up. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs, whose work on “The Limey” provided Soderbergh with one of the best scripts of his career, isn’t as surefooted this time, and “Haywire” never sinks its claws into the viewer like the filmmaker’s best material. Instead, the movie misses a genuine opportunity to add something new to the genre; Mallory Kane is the only female character of significance, and her singular prowess only serves to remind us that she exists in a space controlled and populated by men.