Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire has been something of an intellectual curiosity since it was originally announced back in September 2009. The director of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Traffic has always had a flirtatious relationship with mainstream Hollywood, culminating in a satisfactory but overlong love affair with the Ocean’s Eleven franchise, but a straight-up action movie? Starring Gina Carano, a beautiful MMA superstar with no acting experience? Who are you and what have you done with the director of Schizopolis?
Well, it turns out he’s alive and well and had a really good time making Haywire, one of Soderbergh’s most entertaining films. But he’s not shooting for the moon or anything. Haywire takes its cues directly from the Straight-to-Video action movies you’d expect an MMA fighter to wind up in and plays them completely seriously. It winds up being the best movie Cynthia Rothrock never made. Even the plot feels hokey: Gina Carano is a black ops agent, a mission goes bad, and now she’s on the run from her old employers trying to expose their corruption, clear her name and kick some ass along the way. That’s genuinely it. But Soderbergh takes an almost Jean-Pierre Melville approach to the material, revisiting familiar genre tropes with a fresh eye on the personalities involved, and a dialed-back, stylish approach to the action. It’s impressive that something so utterly familiar can feel this refreshing. This is Le Samourai for the Steven Seagal crowd.
Frequent Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs, who wrote the superb script for The Limey, plies his particularly deft trade again here, and he deserves special kudos for simultaneously following and subverting convention. Michael Angarano takes the typically thankless role of the “Everyman” – usually an “Everywoman” in this sort of film – who has nothing to do with the plot but gets dragged along for the ride by the stalwart action hero. Or does he? Angarano is kinda-sorta kidnapped by Carano in the opening scene, ostensibly to save his life, et cetera, but Dobbs only uses him as a flashback device, allowing the film to start in medias res with mystery and a bang but quickly giving the heroine an excuse to explain how she got there. Halfway through the film the flashback is done, and hardly a car chase later Angarano is out of the picture, having served his narrative purpose and stepped out of the way of who we really wanted to see: the actual star of the film. No tacked on personal subplots, no forced love interests. Dobbs included the clichéd trope because it's an action movie standard, but did so without any of the unnecessary baggage that usually comes kicking and screaming along with it.
But I suspect some action fans may be put off by Haywire’s "classiness." Soderbergh knows enough to punctuate his drama with regular spurts of run-and-gunplay, but by design the film ignores common pitfalls like comic relief, cackling villains and MacGuffin-based storylines. Haywire seems focused on the moment more than the events that spawned it. Oh sure, there’s a big conspiracy and government spooks are up to their old tricks, but that’s incidental to what Carano actually experiences as a result of those machinations. The sidelong glances are far more thrilling here than anything Michael Douglas has planned.
It’s all part of a clever ploy to turn Gina Carano into an action superstar without pigeonholing her as a "female action hero." Late in the film, Ewan MacGregor casually reminds Michael Fassbender that thinking of Mallory Kane as "a woman" is a mistake. He's right. She’s every bit the equal of Jason Statham, and although she enjoys a distinct sexiness there’s nary a hint of bare flesh. She has an antagonistic relationship with Channing Tatum, for example, but is comfortable with the sexual tension that results from that dynamic. She’s a pleasingly feminist action hero without ever calling attention to it. In a way, Mallory Kane is the best female action character we’ve seen yet, at least on Western shores. If they ever get that Wonder Woman movie made, Carano is a shoe-in.
As smart as Haywire is, and it’s very smart, and as unconventional as its storytelling choices are, and they’re refreshingly unconventional, Steven Soderbergh’s lone foray into "B-Movie Shoot ‘Em Up Land" works on every old-fashioned level. It’s simply aided by the wise decision not to play it up too much. Haywire is not a mission statement, nor is it a feminist parable, it’s just a by-the-numbers action movie made with style that compensates for its mere dollop of substance. Soderbergh’s restraint, Carano’s charisma, and Dobbs’ cleverness elevates the material without ever looking down on its predecessors. It’s a class act all the way.