Film Review: “Haywire”

by Jason LeRoy on January 20, 2012

Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender in HAYWIRE

starring: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Michael Angarano

written by: Lem Dobbs

directed by: Steven Soderbergh

MPAA: Rated R for some violence

I suppose Steven Soderbergh should be applauded for his willingness to chase inspiration in any direction it takes him. He built the film The Girlfriend Experience entirely around porn star Sasha Grey because she fascinated him. His upcoming Magic Mike tells the story of Channing Tatum’s years as an exotic dancer, because I guess he thought it was a cool story. And now another non-actor, accomplished female MMA fighter Gina Carano, has received the Soderbergh treatment (been Soderized?) as the lead in Haywire, his latest coolly efficient genre exercise.

The story is simple, familiar, and ultimately unimportant: Carano’s character, who has the Archer-ready name of Mallory Kane, is an ex-Marine turned private contractor working for the government on dangerous overseas adventures. But when she gets sold out during a job, she sets off on a fiery take-no-prisoners mission in pursuit of answers and vengeance against those who nearly killed her.

I say “nearly” because Mallory seems, by all accounts, to be unkillable. In one scene of dastardly plotting, a man who has just been tasked with murdering her exclaims that he’s never done a woman before. “Oh no, don’t think of her as a woman,” the client replies. “That would be a mistake.” We find this out for ourselves in the film’s electrifying first scene, in which a bruised Mallory limps into a diner and is soon joined by Aaron (Channing Tatum), whom we gather is displeased with her. He unexpectedly lunges, brutally pummeling her while hapless diner patrons attempt to intervene. But girlfriend don’t need their help. She swiftly gains the upper hand, and we make our first giddy acquaintance with the film’s main draw: Carano’s fighting skills.

Carano is a wildly gifted warrior; she is the kind of awe-inspiring bad-ass that makes you want to learn how to fight so you can be more like her. And Soderbergh shoots the fight scenes in wide shots with a minimum of cuts so we can fully experience the majesty of her bloody ballet (and rest assured that we are not watching stunt actors). He lets them play out quietly without a score, so all we hear are the grunts, strained breathing, and, of course, the blows. They are reminiscent of that greatest of female fight scenes, Uma Thurman vs. Vivica A. Fox in Kill Bill, except with fewer cuts and less exaggerated sound effects. In short, Soderbergh is striving for fight realism, and he succeeds.

But while Carano’s fighting abilities are the film’s raison d’être, her acting is its greatest liability. Despite a face that suggests an intriguing mix of Anna Kendrick and Mariska Hargitay, Carano is a limited actor to say the least. By my count, she has four expressions at her disposal: polite smile, furrowed brow, fighting rage-mask, and blankness (her favorite). Soderbergh made the bizarre choice to digitally alter her voice, making it into more of a gravelly purr than her natural speaking voice; he says this was to further distinguish the character from Carano, but it seems a bit late in the game to begin making such distinctions. I assume this may have been an effort to mask the weakness of Carano’s line readings by giving her a more authoritative sound, and it worked on my movie date, who hadn’t heard about the voice alteration. But to me, it sounded flat and robotic. In the first five minutes of the film that were released online, the voice doesn’t sound altered; it is less distracting than the finished product.

As is his tendency, Soderbergh has assembled an extremely impressive supporting cast without giving them much to do. Only Michael Fassbender, as a fellow agent, makes an impression (no, not a peen print), nimbly pivoting between debonair charm and homicidal menace in his thrilling centerpiece sequence. In his one-on-one bits with Carano, Tatum experiences the rare pleasure of being the better actor in a scene. And Michael Douglas appears to be wearing pink lipstick in a bizarre interlude that also features a lone CG tumbleweed rolling behind Mallory to underscore her isolation.

With a funky Isaac Hayes-esque score by David Holmes (who scored all three Ocean’s films) and evocative cinematography by Soderbergh himself (under his pseudonym, Peter Andrews), this is a stylish and occasionally exhilarating action flick that suggests gritty ’70s naturalism; there isn’t much dialogue, and the scenes between the ass-kicking money shots are chilly and sedate. While it is a technically expert film — we should expect nothing less from Soderbergh — it still plays out like a second-rate Kill Bill, failing to rouse much interest in the characters or story. Watching Carano fight is entertaining beyond all reason; everything else is just filler.

Haywire opens nationwide today.

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