Haywire, in its fashion, possesses many of the best qualities of its protagonist; like Mallory Kane, it’s lean, mean, efficient, and wholly focused on attaining its goals and realizing its purpose. It also teeters, occasionally, on the verge of emotional vulnerability. Neither Kane (MMA fighter Gina Carano) nor director Steven Soderbergh are especially willing to tip their hands too much in that direction, and meanwhile the film primarily concerns itself with Kane’s quest for answers and revenge. But in between Haywire‘s artfully composed havoc and kinetic, grounded action sequences, both Soderbergh and Carano arrive at surprisingly stirring human beats that turn Kane into a genuinely compelling character and significantly elevate the rest of the material by extension. In Mallory Kane they may have created the new yardstick by which future action heroines and heroes alike will be measured, and in Haywire they’ve unequivocally produced an outstanding entry in recent American action cinema.
Even fresh, exciting films can come from fairly well-tread places, of course, and Haywire‘s set-up feels familiar. In the world of globe-trotting covert operatives, everybody apparently exists a mere hair’s breadth away from sudden and complete betrayal at any given moment; as we meet Kane, she’s already learned this harsh lesson herself after receiving the Michael Westen treatment during a job in Dublin. Connections severed and with a target on her head, Kane’s left to her own devices to survive and figure out who wants her dead and why so she can seek some vicious, bone-snapping revenge.
Worn-out though the plot may be, Soderbergh handles Haywire with his trademark sense of aesthetics and impressive finesse. The film is almost airtight; it slackens only briefly during its ninety minute and change running time, and there’s almost a sense that Soderbergh loosens his grip on the drama and action intentionally to give us a moment to breathe. From the opening five minutes, Haywire propels forward with a brisk pace. Soderbergh strikes a fine balance here in maintaining steady forward momentum throughout the film’s duration. His deployment of plot is shrewd and precise. Haywire wastes nothing and tells its story with a minimum of conversation, and the result is a film that’s action-driven to the fullest extent of the term.
Kane isn’t the sort to mince words; she aims to get things done as expediently and cleanly as possible. This works both as a character trait and as a way around Carano’s lack of experience as a leading lady, though that’s not to say she’s without the necessary chops to make Kane into a well-sculpted character. But Carano’s virtues and sensibilities lend themselves to a film carried by little and less exposition, which in turn instills Haywire with a welcome sense of vitality. Action drives everything here. Few are the discussions in which the details of Kane’s background and the unceremonious treachery done upon her are revealed in full. Those that do crop up are defined by brevity and crisp, pointed dialogue.
And in Haywire, talking tends to lead into scenes of action. Carano shines here, as one might expect from a person of her pugilistic pedigree, and if another film this year manages to top what she has accomplished here in tandem with Soderbergh’s direction and an incredible supporting cast, I’ll be speechless. Haywire remains firmly anchored in each action scene, favoring unapologetic, straightforward fighting over wirework fantasies. The steady, directly-positioned camerawork captures the full brutal impact of each punch and each kick as Kane dispatches her foes with ruthless efficacy; make no mistake, this is the sort of picture where audiences . No man is her equal; Kane simply chews them up and spits them out like so much gristle. For some, that may pose a problem– perhaps not that she’s a woman physically overcoming the men sent after her*, but that she’s impossible to best. Yet Kane operates in a male-dominated industry in which she must decisively outmatch the men around her rather than equal them; it’s reasonable to conclude that she has struggled her whole career to gain her universally recognized status as a woman not to be scorned.
The legitimacy of Carano’s martial prowess can’t be called into question; more of a concern lies in her ability to emote. Kane isn’t an overflowing font of charm, but Carano brings an unexpected grace to the role nevertheless and succeeds in making her more than a blank slate. She actually finds something magnetic and engaging about the character beyond her combat abilities. Her acting isn’t sublime, but it is nuanced enough to reveal ever so slightly Kane’s more human elements, particularly in her relationship to her father (Bill Paxton), a career military man and clear influence on his daughter’s life decisions, and her connection to Aaron (Channing Tatum), a fellow spy/wetworks sort. The quiet work Carano does to illuminate the personality behind Kane’s tough exterior meshes well with that latter characteristic, and ends up making Kane an infinitely more substantive and memorable character.
It helps that Carano has a retinue of gifted actors surrounding her. Just as the best stunt doubles selflessly work to make movie stars look good, so too do the supporting players of Haywire strive to augment Carano’s work here. Apart from Paxton and Tatum, Carano is placed alongside the likes of Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, and Antonio Banderas. Each, in turn, does fantastic work selling Kane’s lethality on an almost mythic scale; the danger she represents is quantifiable, and when the backstab intended to kill her is botched, the mere knowledge of her survival is enough to set those responsible immediately on edge. Carano’s good enough to establish herself as a credible threat to their continued existence**, but the work done by the rest of the players meaningfully adds to her mystique.
I’m endlessly fascinated by watching more artistically-minded filmmakers try their hand at action cinema. Recently, Joe Wright’s Hanna won my adulation, but we can go back eight years and look at, for example, Paul Greengrass’ Bourne Supremacy as a precursor to that film, Soderbergh’s, and others. Soderbergh’s such a stylistic chameleon that the idea of him directing fight scenes doesn’t actually feel particularly odd, and of the art-house action films that have come out in the last decade Haywire ranks among the most accomplished. Haywire manages to earn its “R” rating without being graphic, but anyone who appreciates a well-shot throwdown should get their money’s worth. Anyone expecting more will find many of the elements that can be described as signature Soderbergh– that aforementioned emphasis on action and imagery to progress narrative, examination of deception’s cascading repercussions– present here. Put simply, the movie’s pleasures are double; come for the plentiful and amazing ass-kicking, stay for the morality tale.
*Though I am interested in seeing how gender politics inform people’s reactions to the film.
**If I have one criticism of the film, it’s that the last twenty minutes or so coalesces into a series of shots wherein Kane sneaks up on one of her nemeses and thrashes the daylights out of them. The byline of the film could have been Gina Carano is Right Behind You. All that said, this is nitpicking of the highest order. And I don’t want to get on Gina Carano’s bad side.