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Imagine an entire action film dedicated to the proposition that every fight possesses the intensity of the classic Sean Connery–Robert Shaw to-the-death scrap in From Russia With Love and you’ll know what Haywire is all about. With all the feel of a vacation from more high-minded and ambitious projects, Steven Soderbergh celebrates making his 25th feature film within 22 years with a kick-ass international action romp toplining mixed martial arts star Gina Carano as a covert operative who proceeds to whup a succession of macho leading men in addition to assorted anonymous foes; she’s Pepper to Angelina’s Salt. World-premiered as a surprise sneak preview at Hollywood’s AFI Fest, this Relativity release should enjoy a solid commercial career with action-seeking male and female audiences upon its Jan. 20 release.
A handsome, black-haired hardbody who wears an evening dress as easily as she does a hoodie, Carano exudes the sort of self-confidence and physical wherewithal that leaves no doubt she can prevail in any situation. This is essential because the film rides upon one’s certainty that her character, Mallory Kane, an international troubleshooter assigned to off-the-books missions, can take out virtually any guy in mano a mano combat. Soderbergh shoots her half-a-dozen or so fight scenes without doubles or cheat editing, emphasizing his star’s abilities to the extent that the semblance and extremity of the combat’s reality becomes the film’s entire raison d’etre.
In this, Haywire entirely and winningly succeeds. In one sequence, she chases a young man across half of Barcelona until she catches up with him and lets him have it. Elsewhere, she bounces off walls, leaps from one building to another, employs a devastating leg lock, exhibits extraordinary backward driving skills, shoots unerringly, slams guys into assorted hard surfaces, knows just where to kick and, once, sensing she’s met a physical complement, makes out with a young hunk.
Soderbergh and scenarist Lem Dobbs, who previously wrote Kafka and The Limey for the director, seem keen to admit that the action scenes are the point of the film, content to construct a plainly generic story around them. It’s a straight revenge tale, with Mallory fighting her way through assorted muscle-bound, well-armed and otherwise formidable obstacles in order to find out who set her up for assassination after she pulled off the Barcelona job.
The script makes no attempt to assert its plausibility or realism; it is, instead, refreshingly frank about what it is, a simple, workable framework for the melees and mayhem.
Haywire gets right down to the business in the opening scene, a very rough tussle between Mallory and an agent (Channing Tatum) with whom she has history. Escaping in a car with a freaked-out young man named Scott (Michael Angarano), she relates what’s led up to this tense moment, beginning with the Barcelona caper, which Mallory pulled off with great panache.
Mallory’s point man (Ewan McGregor, with a very dorky haircut) then sends her to Dublin on unwanted arm-candy duty with another operative, the dashing Paul (Michael Fassbender, in glamor-boy mode). The two are very well matched physically, in their sophistication and their ruthlessness, which becomes apparent when Paul, instead of putting the make on her, tries to kill her. Their prolonged struggle, which demolishes a suite at the Shelbourne Hotel, is a tour de force for the performers, director and whoever else helped work out all the moves.
Now knowing she’s been betrayed, Mallory dedicates herself to getting back to the U.S., but must first contend with a platoon of agents who chase her through the streets and across the rooftops of Dublin. Her international travel difficulties conveniently skipped over, the yarn rejoins the present-day as Mallory and Scott’s getaway is abruptly ended so as to force the story to the grand New Mexico home of Mallory’s father (a very good Bill Paxton). It turns out Mallory is just a daddy’s girl after all, the daughter of a former Marine (as she is, too) who is now a renowned author of modern warfare nonfiction. The house becomes the setting for film’s rough penultimate battle before Mallory settles up accounts with her superiors, who also include the smooth top man played by Michael Douglas and a more shadowy figure portrayed by Antonio Banderas, mostly in a bushy graying beard.
The fine use of locations, elegantly mobile shooting style and hair-trigger editing are all in line with what one expects from Soderbergh. But here the generally larky but serious-when-it-needs-to-be tone is set by the wildly diverse musical contributions of David Holmes, whose film score-sampling background and blues-and-jazz techno orientation yield many different flavors to occasionally jarring but overall bouyant effect.
As solid as all the male actors are, in the end the show belongs to Soderbergh, who took a risk with a largely untested leading lady, and Carano, whose shoulders, and everything else, prove plenty strong enough to carry the film. The director shrewdly determined what she could and perhaps couldn’t do, and she delivered with a turn that makes other actresses who have attempted such roles, no matter how toned and buff they became, look like pretenders.