'Haywire': A Knockout
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
At one point, late in Steven Soderbergh's globe-trotting thriller "Haywire," two men plan a murder. One is the intended victim's employer and the other a killer-for-hire with a dangerous past. The killer takes a sip of whiskey, hesitating. He admits he's never killed a woman before. The employer waves that off. "You shouldn't think of her as being a woman. No, that would be a mistake." That ominous warning works as a joke, but it also works as a real assessment of "Haywire" star Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts fighter the director saw on TV one night while idly channel surfing. As he said at the film's L.A. premiere, "I saw Gina Carano beat up a woman in a cage, and I thought 'The only way this could be better is if she were beating up a male movie star.'" He was smiling as he said it. You'll be smiling as you watch.
When a filmmaker who needs no introduction gives us a leading lady who does, it's tempting to write the result off as a gimmick, a ruse, a delusion. And Soderbergh, who's seemed hell-bent on making as many movies as he can before his contemplated "retirement," is throwing himself into his recent films with a vengeance. Some have said that the director's recent (digital-video aided) productivity in advance of his retirement is like the alcoholic who intends to walk through the doors of rehab saturated in booze. After his most recent string of films, though, I'm inclined to respond to that the same way Lincoln did when told of Gen. Grant's drinking problem: Find out what whiskey he drinks, and send his peers a case of it.
Carano plays Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine turned private contractor in a world of lawyers, guns and money. She's the superstar of her firm's talent roster, a gung-ho go-getter, and because she knows too much, she must be killed. We're told all of this in flashback while Mallory flees for her life alongside a youth she reluctantly kidnapped, Scott (a fine and funny Michael Angarano), as she drives his car through snowy upstate New York with promises to keep, miles to go before she sleeps and a bullet hole in her right arm ...
Carano is, as noted, a charming, vivacious young woman who can also throw, and take, a punch. The fight directors and stunt coordinators (including Jonathan Eusebio, Don Tai and J. J. Perry) have also gone to great lengths to teach co-stars like Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum how to do the same. When Mallory faces down a lover turned betrayer or a friend turned foe, we get to watch long-take, intimate fight scenes with no wires or digital trickery or off-looking stunt doubles. In an age when filmmaking has made fake fighting too fake, "Haywire"'s grunting, gut-bruising fight scenes hit like, well, one of Carano's blows. As an actress, she's in the same boat as, for but one example, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson: I wouldn't want to watch either of them take one of the lead roles in "Hamlet," but they're easy to watch, physically magnetic and possessed of a grace in action that one cannot shop for, study or steal. (Indeed, weighed against a similar crew of athletics-to-acting peers, she's a far superior screen presence than pro wrestler-actors Steve Austin or John Cena.)
And, again, judged as an action film, "Haywire" is similarly unique. The script is by Lem Dobbs, who previously wrote for the director on payback and the evil that men do -- albeit in more somber and sober fashion -- in "The Limey." There's nothing here as haunted, or as haunting, as Terence Stamp's face, but there are a few notes between the blows about the price of killing and the wages of death. There's some humor here -- Michael Douglas appears as a majestically cynical intelligence man, while McGregor's blow-dried twit blathers a mix of MBA-speak and cliché code phrases. But there's also Mallory's small smile as she cracks her neck left and right before an unexpected friend drops in at a diner, because, hey, you never know.
The ending seems a bit too cynically designed and focus-tested in order to tie everything up, but, at the same time, I'd give a lot to see Carano and her Mallory Kane back on-screen. One can only hope that "Haywire" could become the indie (or, even, indie-er) rotating-director version of the ongoing, always-changing "Mission: Impossible" franchise. Swift, stunning and its own reward for the risks Soderbergh and Carano took, "Haywire" doesn't just start 2012 with a bang; it sets the bar very, very high for every action film that's going to follow in its footsteps this year.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.