By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Steven Soderbergh has gone Haywire, and the results are entertaining if uninspiring.
Directorial résumés don’t come much more prolific or eclectic — 25 movies in 22 years — than that of Oscar-winning Steven Soderbergh. Breaking through with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he went on to create Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen, The Informant, and Contagion, among many others. (He even does much of his own shooting and editing under pseudonyms.)
It’s a globe-trotting revenge thriller about Mallory Kane, a female, Marine-trained covert operative who troubleshoots as an assassin for a government security contractor in dangerous corners of the world, seeking payback after she is betrayed and left for dead during a mission in which she rescues a Chinese journalist being held hostage.
For his lead, Soderbergh has anointed and appointed Gina Carano — a mixed-martials-arts (MMA) superstar with limited acting experience — to carry a movie that’s built around her first feature film lead role.
The self-assured Carano responds by rising to the challenge and not only making the myriad fight scenes convincing, but holding her own in the less physical scenes. She both looks like and is the real thing.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she is supported by an experienced and able ensemble, which includes Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, and Michael Fassbender as agents, Michael Douglas and Antonia Banderas as her supervisors, and Bill Paxton as her father.
But kickboxing Carano has more than just MMA skills. She’s sufficiently charismatic to be an action star, a likable character, and a respectable actress.
And in stepping up to the thespian plate, she puts many of her counterpart male action stars to shame. We’re not talking Oscars here, but completely avoiding cringeworthy moments in pure dialogue scenes in this kind of movie is already a triumph.
The time-hopping script by Lem Dobbs dishes out plot points and backstories in a non-linear way — flashbacks abound — and doesn’t attempt much in the way of real-world plausibility. Which would be fine, but it never manages to make us care about the whodunit aspects of the story, or to feel anything beyond our anticipation of the next fight scene and our appreciation of the skills on hand during those bouts.
If the film aspires to be a distaff version of the Matt Damon-starring Bourne thrillers, it’s got a long way to go. In terms of story values, although it’s certainly not stillbourne, it’s no great shakes either.
As MMA-themed dramas go, Haywire doesn’t have the emotional heft of, say, the recent Warrior. But it’s similarly muscular and visceral during its brutal and intense but fluidly choreographed action sequences, which are neither punctuated with smart-aleck one-liners nor garnished with musical accompaniment.
This is life-or-death conflict being depicted, after all, and it’s presented as such.
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But it’s the bone-crunching fight scenes that grab us, and Soderbergh, also serving as cinematographer and editor, knows how to make them breathlessly exciting without making them counterproductively frenetic to hide the artifice. He holds his shots and lets them breathe, making sure to make it obvious that Carano, born to be a Bourne, is actually doing the fighting. “Stunt double,” my eye!
If Soderbergh’s intention was to showcase an impressive new female action hero, he has certainly done that with the well-chosen Carano. But it is nonetheless difficult to escape the feeling that a director with Soderbergh’s talent working on the one-dimensional action genre, no matter how slick and efficient the final product, is somehow slumming.
We’ll nonetheless knock out 2½ stars out of 4 for the lean and mean thriller Haywire, in which director Soderbergh and emerging star Carano reintroduce us to the simple joy of exhilarating but authentic action.