When a man is contracted to kill kickass undercover agent Mallory Kane, he says with mild curiosity, “I’ve never done a woman before,” and gets the perfect deadpan reply: “You shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. That would be mistake.” That doesn’t even sound sexist, because Kane is as much a lethal machine as she is a person, an approach that works just fine in Haywire, Steven Soderbergh’s walloping (literally; everybody gets walloped) spy-action movie.
Soderbergh knows how to reinvent genres, like Oceans 11, and how to make non-actors look good. (Porn actress Sasha Grey was very good in his Girlfriend Experience, and just horrible on Entourage, even though she was playing herself.) Here he builds the film around mixed martial arts champion (so I’m told) Gina Carano, but the real trick of the film is the elaborate international adventure he builds around her, supported by a dream list of actors including Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Michael Douglas. Now that is a fun movie.
We find Mallory at the start in an upstate New York coffee shop, where Channing Tatum starts smacking her around. We barely have time to gasp before she starts stomping on him and showing who’s the real tough guy. We’re immediately on her side, murky though her own past is, because someone has sold her out and she’s determined to find out who.
Lem Dobbs, who has written the serious Soderbergh films Kafka and The Limey, creates a deft, flashback-heavy story that always remains lucid, as Mallory thinks back to the Barcelona job that got her in such trouble in the first place, and takes another short-term job in Dublin that she only thinks is unrelated. Sometimes her fists and feet move faster than her brain.
The sequence in Dublin, where Carano and Fassbender’s characters assume the posh cover of a businessman and his wife, is the film’s highlight, ending in a body-slamming fight in their hotel room so ferocious it makes the action in Mr. and Mrs. Smith look comatose.
Carano has admitted that her voice was electronically altered for the part, but she’s been given a deepened, modulated delivery that enhances Mallory’s steadiness. And no one has ever had better support, especially by Fassbender and McGregor, as a Washington drone who may or may not be as ineffectual as he seems. (McGregor actually saves a much smaller new movie, David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, now on VOD; here’s my review.) Douglas and Antonio Banderas play slippery characters commissioning black-ops jobs, and Bill Paxton plays Mallory’s ex-marine father.
Soderbergh has said that Haywire was influenced by early James Bond films, and in its zooming, scenic action, it is. But Bond was always the appealing central character and here Mallory is more functional. But Soderbergh helps Carano function so well, playing to her action strengths, that you can see how his derailed version of Moneyball, relying on non-actors, might actually have worked. (Of course Bennet Miller’s Moneyball is pretty terrific too.)
Soderbergh’s last popcorn movie, Contagion, was an outsized disappointment. The slick, constantly entertaining Haywire more than makes up for it.
Here’s the cool, accurate trailer. (Warning: it’s full of spoilers.)