The rise of female action stars in the last decade has been exciting, but has often come at the expense of pushing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Grumpy old cavemen like me have frequently scoffed at the notion, egalitarian as it may be, that spindly and protein-deficient runway models like Milla Jovovich or Angelina Jolie could demolish wave after wave of burly men thrice their size. In Haywire, Steven Soderbergh offers a rebuke of that critique, by casting a woman who is both beautiful and legitimately capable of whooping mucho ass. This new archetype is Gina Carano, a former MMA champion and American Gladiator turned nascent actress. She's graceful with her fists but clunkier with dialogue, delivering a stiff leading debut. While she's no Meryl Streep, Carano isn't really asked to stretch much as an actress; though her vigorous, brutal fight scenes require a whole other kind of flexibility.
The plot is aggressively, shockingly superficial; a rehash of super spy genre tropes culled from highly successful franchises (uh, Mission Impossible and the Bourne films, etc.), though the execution of those familiar plot points is another matter. Carano plays Mallory Kane, an elite black ops operative hired out to various shadowy concerns for jobs too discreet or dirty for official government agents to mess with. One such job, a Barcelona rescue mission, goes horribly wrong, leaving our gal double-crossed and running from dangerous power players whose unclear motives might occasionally conflict with each other.
Soderbergh is one of those masterful directors who everyone wants to work with, so he can cast high-profile faces in disposable roles. As in the recent Contagion, half the fun is watching A-listers such as Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas gnaw through the scenery while we wait to see who gets wiped out next. Here, the comely Carano squares off against a trio of leading men, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and Channing Tatum, in sometimes flirty encounters — though they usually end in someone getting head butted, kicked or strangled.
Soderbergh shoots these battles with minimal tricks; keeping the camera focused on the brutal action, often in longer takes than the frantic high-motion cut style made famous by stylists such as Paul Greengrass. The camera placement also gets very selective during extensive chase scenes, where Carano bounds across rooftops accompanied by a funky '70s soundtrack straight outta Kojak. There is such an intentionally spare, almost reductivist approach to the material as if commenting on, or even a spoofing, the modern action flick, though the presentation is so bone-dry the laughs are spotty.
This is minor-key Soderbergh to be sure, without much to say aside from his screwing around with formalism and conventional scene structures in a typically arch, art-house way. Haywire may simply be a genre exercise for Soderbergh, but few directors are able to flex their cinematic muscles as effectively.