Soderbergh's 'Haywire': A Star Is Born, Fists Flying

Mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a highly trained covert operative, in a twisty, tautly wrought thriller.

hide captionMixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a highly trained covert operative, in a twisty, tautly wrought thriller.

Claudette Barius/Relativity Media

Haywire

  • Director: Steven Soderbergh
  • Genre: Action
  • Running Time: 93 minutes

Rated R for some violence

With: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender

(Recommended)

Back in the heyday of the pure action movie, you started with the star and worked your way backward toward a plot that played to that star's strengths.

If you had a Schwarzenegger, you crafted a film that required raw power, little agility, and (particularly early in his career) a bare minimum of speech.

Have a Van Damme on your hands? Martial arts action, lots of hand-to-hand combat, and a little winking wit.

Gymnastics champion Kurt Thomas is your star? Put him in white warm-up pants and have him pommel-horse the bad guys into submission.

So when director Steven Soderbergh caught mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano on TV by chance one night — and saw in her the sort of charisma and physical talent of a great action hero — the seed of Haywire was planted just like that. This is a film built around its star, just as surely as any of its cheesier '80s forebears.

Soderbergh, who has a long history of working well with non-actors in his films, took the fighter he saw on screen, and along with screenwriter Lem Dobbs (who also penned Soderbergh's Kafka and The Limey), created a celluloid persona that reflected what he saw in her already: a tough, self-assured and prodigiously talented physical performer. He just made her a mercenary doing black-ops work for the government rather than a cage fighter.

The genesis story might be all '80s, but Soderbergh reaches back further for the plot, which feels more like a twisty, contemplative '60s spy thriller than a pure action showcase.

Carano's Mallory starts the film already on the run, and the first half of the film reveals a globe-hopping knot of international intrigue that takes her from Barcelona to San Diego to Dublin — first on a government job set up by her handler Kenneth (an impressively conniving Ewan McGregor), then on her own after a series of double-crosses leaves her ducking into shadows and scrambling across rooftops.

The high-level motivations of that plot don't seem to interest Soderbergh much. As the puppetmasters (McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas) move the pieces (Michael Fassbender, Mathieu Kassovitz, Channing Tatum) into position, they talk in cloaked language that feels vaguely authentic without really meaning much.

But then understanding entirely what's happening isn't really necessary, because much of that jargon-heavy complexity is really a decoy — a device supporting the first-act notion that Haywire is a complicated machine in the mold of Ocean's Eleven. (That film's composer, David Holmes, heightens that perception with the same sort of jaunty, jazzy lounge music that defined Ocean's.) In reality, it'll turn out to be a deft, single-minded revenge story that shares DNA with the thoughtful, darkly funny The Limey.

As with any great action movie, what we're really here to see is the star showing off whatever skills got them on screen to begin with. And Haywire never disappoints.

Soderbergh makes two critical decisions in the action showcases of the film: First, he drops the music out entirely whenever a fight happens. He's savvy enough to know that you don't need to manipulate the audience's emotions with music when you can just use the blunt-force impact of fists meeting faces and bodies crushing furniture.

Secondly, he doesn't cheat reality with close-ups and disorienting quick-cuts. He lets Carrano's acrobatic talents play out in wide shots that are a less fantastical equivalent to the balletic beauty of Asian martial-arts movies. He gives each a unique tone and setting, all leading up to a multiple-angle, brilliantly edited masterpiece of a fight on a deserted beach that deserves to be enshrined in an action-movie hall of fame.

Some might say that Soderbergh doesn't give Carano much to do, but the fact is that he gives her only exactly what the movie needs: a stone-faced, magnetic physical presence with singular purpose and laserlike focus. Carano's got an all-star cast of talented actors around her to carry the dramatic load; that leaves her to perfectly execute the part that was created for her. To see what she's capable of here is to witness the birth of the next great action hero. (Recommended)

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