Haywire is a twitchy, grungy spy thriller directed by the sometimes indie, sometimes mainstream, always bogglingly prolific, Stephen Soderbergh. He seems to have borrowed from The Girlfriend Experience and Contagion this time around, casting female mixed martial arts star Gina Carano, who previously did not have movie star on her resume, in the lead of a modestly budgeted genre ensemble film. Carano plays Mallory, a highly-skilled contract black ops agent, who is on the run after something goes wrong with an international assignment she had been involved in. Mallory must fight for her life while piecing together who has betrayed her, how, and why.
Haywire appears to be shot guerrilla style at times, but its low budget feeling is betrayed by its high-profile cast. Soderbergh’s ability to attract great talent for even a small role in one of his films is impressive. Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, and Channing Tatum make up the ensemble cast. And Gina Carano gets to kick the shit out of most of them, the stars frequently casting their stunt doubles aside and actually sparring with the fighter.
I especially loved Michael Fassbender’s throwdown with Carano. Fassbender brings so much personality to his fighting style, and his character, Paul, is physically the most matched to taking on Mallory. The fantastic choreography of their scene in an upscale hotel room will bring you right to the edge of your seat; the violence they inflict on each other is cringe-worthy. It’s rough, loud, and sexually charged, Mallory is smashed through a ton of glass before they wind up wrestling on the bed. The intensity and hands down awesomeness of this battle rival Viggo’s sauna showdown from Eastern Promises, but without the nudity.
Although Carano is so interesting to look at, naturally beautiful, and extremely impressive physically, at the end of the film I wish she had been given less dialogue. The script called for a handful of one-liners and asides from the lead, generally unnecessary bits of talking. Her delivery is stiff and unnatural, it’s too obvious how uncomfortable she is speaking these lines. But her movements are the polar opposite, She’s so comfortable performing in the action sequences, and as those are the highlights of the film, she owns it. Despite the awkward dialogue, she’s so good in the scenes that carry the film, it works.
In fact, I think all my problems were in the writing. It’s mildly brainless, with no justification for its erratic structure. Haywire begins with a framing narrative, Mallory turns up in a roadside diner in the middle of snowy mountains, bruised and cautious, obviously on the run. Channing Tatum shows up, they exchange a vague dialogue, he’s trying to convince her to leave with him. Of course, she refuses, and the first of the intense, gritty fights ensues. Mallory winds up taking a hostage, a young guy with a car, and as they flee, she launches into the story of how she got there. The frame is weird, lasts only till the middle of the film, and it just doesn’t feel needed. The male hostage brings nothing to the story, and vanishes with the end of the frame. Why not start at the beginning, in Barcelona, where the inciting conflict occurred, and then bring the audience on the journey with her?
Still, I liked the film. I muted my mind and got caught up in it while I was watching. It’s a fun ride, and I appreciate the gritty visual tone of it and the experimental qualities Soderbergh employed. It’s always fun to see big name actors trying something different. And, after all, what Haywire really boils down to is watching Gina Carano kick ass as a sort of lady Bourne. She’s already a strong, awesome female doing MMA, but now she’s a strong awesome action star. Despite Lem Dobbs’ problematic screenplay, Gina Carano’s awesome big-screen fighting wins Cannes.