There has always been an eclectic nature to Steven Soderbergh’s career, so it should come as no surprise that he has made an action film. If anything it seems odd that it took him this long. He’s done plenty of crime films, which feature some action in them, but Haywire is the first time that Soderbergh has really tackled a film whose heart lies in the kicking and the punching.
Maybe he was waiting for the right star. He found her in Gina Carano, an MMA fighter who has an abundance of screen presence, an arsenal of ass-kicking moves and a slight scarcity of acting talent. Two out of three ain’t bad seems to be the mantra here, and Soderbergh has placed Carano up against a gallery of badass actors, each of whom takes up most of the acting slack.
The question I keep wrestling with is whether or not having her against those actors makes matters worse. There’s an argument to be made that action films have a long history of non-actors taking leading roles, from Chuck Norris to Jean-Claude Van Damme to John Cena. We want to see the action hero kicking ass, not delivering soliloquies. But those traditional action heroes mostly play against stuntmen and sub-soap opera actors hanging on to the fringes of filmmaking. Every now and again they’ll find themselves nose to nose with a great character actor - slumming, or trying to pay the rent - but one of the hallmarks of the great character actor is making the lead look better.
Carano is surrounded by leads. Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender (who continues his streak of being amazing, by the way), Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas are all her foils, and she’s really only comfortable when she’s punching them. And in those moments she’s one step beyond - a true blending of cinematic star power with cinematic action chops - but the rest of the time she looks like she’s wearing the wrong shoes. Michael Anganaro and Bill Paxton - both character actors - are the ones against whom she seems most comfortable and natural.
Since the action is where Carano shines, Soderbergh is careful to shoot every action scene crisply. You can see all the punches and moves, and Carano displays remarkable athleticism. The crispness of the action scenes comes at the expense of immersion; there’s always a distance between us and the action, and Soderbergh seems more interested in making it look cool than feeling impactful. Which is fine, and is very much of his aesthetic anyway. There are a couple of standout action scenes - a hotel room brawl with Fassbender, and extended chase scene with heavily armed Irish cops, and a battle in a blacked out house. While there is a distance in the action scenes something I truly enjoyed was the way they were choreographed to feel organic; instead of a highly timed ballet, the fights in Haywire let you see Carano’s character’s thought processes.
The initial impulse in a movie about a kick ass woman is to butch her up. And while Carano's Mallory Kane (that's a killer name) isn't exactly girly she's very much a woman. There's something refreshing about watching her run and realizing she runs just like a girl, because she is. Soderbergh isn't pulling a James Cameron here, trying to strip away the feminine side of the character, and in fact the best parts of the story hinge on her being a woman.
The plot has Kane trying to retire from the mercenary game. But she finds that her ex-lover and boss has double crossed her, and she becomes the target of highly trained international assassins. The film sort of bungles the sleek simplicity of the story towards the end, revealing extra layers of conspiracy when the one layer we had was emotionally and dramatically satisfying on its own.
Haywire is essentially a novelty, a great director trying his hand out something that might be considered outside of his wheelhouse. Of course even as a novelty, Haywire is better than most of the action films released in any given year. It’s incredibly entertaining, and the parade of cool actors adds a definite level of badass. What it really does, though, is show how good Soderbergh’s instincts are: while Gina Carano may never be a truly great actor, she’s got remarkable screen presence and charisma. She’s got that ineffable something you see in movie stars.