Steven Soderbergh has often talked about his admiration for Point Blank, John Boorman's stylish 1967 gangster revenge film. The Limey, Soderbergh's previous collaboration with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, was in many ways an homage to it. Their newest project together, Haywire, merges their appreciation for that classic Lee Marvin film with modern fight choreography. The result is a lean and vastly entertaining picture.
The movie stars MMA fighter Gina Carano as Mallory, a former Marine working as a private-contract soldier of fortune who must use her prodigious skills in order to figure out who set her up to take the fall for a murder during a recent mission in Dublin. It could be Aaron (Channing Tatum), her partner on a previous job; Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), her boss and occasional lover; Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), the man who set up the mission; Coblenz (Michael Douglas), an American diplomat who hired Kenneth's company in the first place; Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz), a mysterious, powerful international figure; or any combination of those men. The only person she can trust is her father (Bill Paxton), a successful author and retired Marine.
The story, while undoubtedly a solidly constructed mystery, takes a backseat to Soderbergh's stylistic decisions. One of the many aspects that stand out is that each of the film's fight scenes, and there are only a few, play without any music. Only the natural sounds of flesh hitting flesh, glass breaking, and bodies being slammed to the ground fill our ears, and that decision gives a viewer no escape -- we are in these scenes, hoping with all our might that Mallory can fend off these more physically imposing men (it's always men she fights). Her knock-down, drag-out brawl with Paul (Michael Fassbender), the agent she's paired with in Dublin, is as good a piece of fight choreography and action filmmaking as you're likely to find, and at the same time it's utterly unlike anything Soderbergh has done before.
People may be skeptical that an MMA fighter could carry a movie like this, and while Carano does have a few bum line readings -- during a phone call to her father, she sounds like a machine -- she's fully credible in the part; she's as believable as a hired assassin as Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender are as trained fighters, and that's exactly what the film needs. This is the third time Soderbergh has anchored a film with a non-traditional actress, and it's the most fully realized and successful of those efforts.
His interest in female characters has always been apparent, but it's grown in recent years. Mallory's attempts to survive a male-dominated world bring to mind parallels to the director's previous work, including Contagion, the film Soderbergh made just before this one. That thriller's underlying subtext was how all women, even the seemingly powerful ones, are at the mercy and control of a society that reflexively puts men in charge. Think back to The Girlfriend Experience (a movie that asks what a woman must go through to be completely independent of men), Erin Brockovich, and even his debut film, sex, lies, and videotape, and you can start to make the case that Soderbergh is one of the few mainstream American filmmakers of his era able to look at issues surrounding feminism in an interesting and entertaining way.
Entertaining, of course, is the key to Haywire's success. For years now, Soderbergh has acted as his own cinematographer using the pseudonym Peter Andrews, and Haywire is a prime example of how he's grown into this role. He finds new and interesting places to put the camera, and he doesn't do it to show off, but simply to give the viewer something unique to look at -- even a shot of people going up in an escalator is riveting because of camera placement. He shoots the fight scenes with an effective blend of third-person spectatorship -- in which we appreciate the physical skill of the actors, much like we would dancers -- and in-your-face immediacy.
Haywire won't change lives, it won't be an Oscar contender, and it won't be considered among Soderbergh's greatest achievements. What it will do is what it wants to do: entertain the hell out of you for 90 minutes.