Note on reviews: I try not to spoil what I would consider major plot revelations in any of my reviews, but I do like to talk about movies in a way that would be meaningful to someone who has seen the film. Thus, assume there are probably more spoilers than you’d find in, say, the trailer for any given film.
From the opening scene it’s clear that Stephen Soderbergh’s excursion into action film making is going to be firmly on his own terms. His star, MMA-fighter turned actress Gina Carano, sits in a cafe somewhere. Something’s gone horribly wrong, and people are after her. When a man shows up who seems both like a friend and a threat (Channing Tatum, doing solid work for once), suddenly the scene turns violent. Carano’s character, Mallory, ends up shot and fleeing in a stolen car, leaving behind a brutalized Tatum.
From the outset Haywire is barely concerned with giving you reasons. Mostly, it’s because Mallory doesn’t know them, but it’s also because they don’t matter. She’s an ex-marine working for a private contractor, doing dirty jobs she is very very good at. Once she did a job, and something went wrong, and now she’s on the run. The film spends its time unwinding these facts, but how and why they went wrong are secondary to showing you the in-the-moment of Mallory’s efforts to deal with them. And deal with them she does.
To begin with, I have to say this is Carano’s movie. Soderbergh’s always had a great eye for untraditional subjects to put on film, and Carano is convincingly tough without having to do a lot of heavy lifting in the acting department. Mallory is taciturn to a fault, and that plays to Carano’s strengths of a wry smile and a lack of formal training that can be turned well into a sense of efficiency. And she’s supported by an amazing cast of people who can elevate her weaknesses with reliable acting chops, from Michael Fassbender to a particularly slimy bearded Antonio Banderas to Ewan McGregor finally getting good at his American accent as the officious organizer-turned-lover-turned-betrayer.
Besides, she wasn’t cast for her acting talents. Carano is flat-out amazing as maybe the best female action star since … well, I don’t even know. Soderbergh has stated that he wanted to make something like a Pam Grier movie, so that comparison works well enough. Of course, Carano isn’t Pam Grier, but she contains within her that essence of confidence and attractiveness that Grier has and had in her most famous films. It’s a strength of will that seems beyond exploitation, a role of firm kick-ass action star that just happens to be female. In Grier’s case, that was through force of personality. In Carano’s case, it’s through her athleticism, which allows her to convincingly move and act like someone who is trained to wreck everyone.
This is the key component to what makes Haywire so good. Carano is magnificent when she’s doing nothing more than running or climbing or slowly creeping along the streets of the various European cities the film takes place in. And when she goes into action mode, you believe her capable of nearly anything, brutal and magnificent in the way only trained martial artists can really be. Her abilities are the heart and soul of the movie, and she makes those scenes sing.
It doesn’t hurt that Soderbergh is a relentlessly efficient, clean director and editor. There is none of the usual quick cut action. Scenes play out with coverage, to be sure, but they’re done with a clarity and flow that so many action films can’t seem to ever get together. Each scene is beautiful, even when what’s happening is horrible, but never is it unclear what is going on. Each movement and each blow is there for you to marvel at. It’s a faith in the actors, the stunt work, and the choreography that even acclaimed modern action directors can’t seem to get right.
In fact, I’d say the full and final tone of Haywire is that of confidence. Soderbergh knows what he’s doing and the people he has cast know how to achieve it. He knows that the audience he is selling to can parse the plot of an action film even without knowing all the details. It’s an economy of pace that allows the film to breeze from hyper-competent military jobs to full on action fiascos to lengthy flight and revenge scenarios all within a tight 93 minute run time. It’s pared straight down to the bone, eliminating pointless subplots and tightening the beats so they strike out and dance away as fast as the movie’s star. And never once does it lose clarity, carrying you along with a surety of visual storytelling that relentlessly maintains cause and effect even when the ‘why’ is ephemeral, as action plot ‘why’s so often are.
Of course, in the end the resolution comes, but it’s not really the point. Come here to see a master director at work with a genre he typically doesn’t play in, with an actress who I hope goes on to make many more movies as good as this one. It’s compelling action, smart and well made, and that’s a rare thing. Genre exercises are so easy to dismiss sometimes, as they’re rarely poignant or rewrite the book on anything, but in a genre where it is seemingly impossible for many directors to even achieve competence, Haywire swaggers in and firmly plants its flag as a no-nonsense, elegant modern action classic.