Steven Soderbergh’s new picture is a curious hybrid between his big-budget studio films and his smaller personal ones. It combines the modest but technically skillful production values of his “independent” work with the empty-headed content of stuff like the “Ocean’s” franchise. That’s an odd combination indeed.
“Haywire” is basically an exercise in swift, kick-ass action sequences around which is situated a convoluted but brainless tale of espionage skullduggery. The central figure is Mallory Kane (Gina Carano, a pretty, and dexterous, MMA fighter with the thespian talents of a female Steven Seagal), an employee of a shadowy fixer organization headed by slimy Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). Mallory, who’s previously had a personal relationship with Kenneth, was part of a team doing an operation in Barcelona—freeing a whistle-blowing Chinese reporter (Anthony Brandon Wong) from his captors. One of her associates in the mission was handsome Aaron (Channing Tatum), and the whole business was bankrolled by Coblanz (Michael Douglas), a US government official, in concert with a European mystery man named Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas).
We learn all this in flashback, as Mallory tells her story to Scott (Michael Angarano), a young bystander who turned over his car to her after a later meeting in a diner with Aaron had turned sour and resulted in a knock-down, drawn-out fight. As she further explains while she drives along, once the Barcelona business was successfully concluded Mallory did Kenneth a favor by undertaking another operation in Ireland, where she was paired with Paul (Michael Fassbender), a handsome Brit, to deal with Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz), another international man of mystery. Unfortunately, that mission turned out to be a set-up, and left Mallory on the run from cops and colleagues alike—as well as leaving behind a couple of corpses.
The rest of the movie is basically about Mallory’s revenge on those who have double-crossed her. The only person she can absolutely trust to assist her is her dad (Bill Paxton), a rich novelist who specializes in Ian Fleming-style action books. There are plenty of bone-crunching stand-offs here, too, as well as a contorted explanation for the assorted motivations behind all the double-dealing and mayhem. It all ends happily, as Oscar Wilde said of fiction, in that the villains (most of them, anyway) get their just deserts.
The fights and chases are the raison d’etre of “Haywire,” and they’ve been expertly choreographed by J.J. Perry and performed with acrobatic aplomb by the tomboyish Carano (like Tony Jaa in his movies, easily the best special effect), who looks as good in tight-fitting jeans or black Ninja jumpsuit as she does in a gorgeous cocktail dress, and who tosses off the rather juvenile bits of humor adequately though her expressive range is otherwise rather limited. Everyone else provides decent support in thin, underwritten parts, though special mention has to be given to Fassbender and McGregor (as well as, presumably, their hardworking stunt-doubles) for their action work, and to Paxton for nicely underplaying Mallory’s cerebral father.
Soderbergh is, as so often, a one-man show here, also serving as cinematographer (Peter Andrews) and editor (Mary Ann Bernard) pseudonymously, and proves himself easily equal to all the tasks. The rest of the technical crew do their jobs perfectly well, and though one would hardly call the result visually beautiful, the images are certainly arresting, taking advantage of the numerous foreign locations.
For what it aims to be, “Haywire” is certainly a success. A pity it doesn’t aim to be much more than a brisk, mindless action flick with a butt-kicking heroine.