Review: ‘Haywire’ is bone-breaking, genre-bending fun

The last time Steven Soderbergh and Lem Dobbs collaborated, the result was “The Limey,” one of my favorite of Soderbergh’s films overall.  It’s a tough-minded, broken-hearted little revenge thriller, and Terrence Stamp is awesome in it.  It’s got style to spare, and it’s really lean.  Gets in, gets it done, and then gets out.

When I first heard about “Haywire” and heard that the film was created specifically to showcase Gina Carano, a well-regarded MMA fighter in real life, I admit that I sort of wrote the film off immediately as “lesser” Soderbergh.  The last film he made where he built a film around a real-life personality was “The Girlfriend Experience,” an only slightly successful movie that is more experiment than experience, so I admit my hopes were not especially high.

I would argue that part of why “Haywire” works so well is because Lem Dobbs is the screenwriter, and he approached this with a wicked pulp spy movie sensibility that pays off in a film that works first as a spy film, second as an action film, and then also as a drama.  It’s genuinely well-written.  It’s clever.  And while there’s plenty of room in the film for Carano to snap into her own skill-set and start beating holy hell out of anyone within arm’s reach, which she does in spectacular fashion several times, those moments are character punctuation.  There’s not a single unmotivated or gratuitous action beat in the film.

In other words, forget what your calendar tells you.  “Haywire” is no mere January movie.

Carano stars as Mallory Kane, part of a private team of specialists hired to do mercenary work around the world.  Her handler is also her husband, Kenneth, and they’ve built a very successful business based on her skills in the field and his contacts in a very grey moral playing field.  The film opens with Mallory in a diner, roughed up and waiting for someone.  Whoever she expects, it’s not Aaron (Channing Tatum), and when he shows up, they go through the motions of a civil conversation, even though they both know what’s coming.  Sure enough, violence erupts, and the tense opening sequence ends with a broken and bleeding Tatum on the floor and Carano taking a hostage, a young guy named Scott (Michael Angarano).  She tells him the story of how things went wrong, allowing Soderbergh to play with a flashback structure.  It’s fun because of the way Dobbs drops all the information, bit by bit, so that you understand how the betrayal went down, what it means, who’s involved, and just how much they’re going to suffer once Mallory gets her hands on them.

The one thing I genuinely enjoyed about “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” was seeing how thoroughly David Fincher played Daniel Craig as “the girl” in the film.  It’s a lovely bit of subversive filmmaking when you cast James Bond and let him be the damsel in distress in the movie, and in “Haywire,” Soderbergh is up to the same sort of games, letting Carano beat the hell out of the entire male cast at one point or another.  Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor… any one of those guys would be the lead in another action movie, and I’m sure Hollywood is happy to see them play superheroic archetypes.  Here, Carano moves through each of them like they’re asleep, just plain crushing them, and it is entertaining each and every time she rips into action.  Acting-wise, she’s got very good moments and some more stilted moments, but it seems like she warmed up to the process over the course of the shoot, and I have a feeling she’d be even better the second time out.

Technically, the film is slick as slick gets.  Soderbergh, working under his pseudonym Peter Andrews, gives it a great kinetic sense and it turns out he’s got a real knack for shooting action.  He’s got a great sense of geography and how to make each punch hurt the worst, and it’s cut with real precision.  Dave Holmes is the perfect choice for the score, giving even the most mundane moments in the film a light, breezy sense of cool.

“Haywire” isn’t one of the deepest films of Soderbergh’s career, but it absolutely nails what it set out to do.  It is a great action ride, and it makes a strong case for Carano in general.  If you just want a high-impact movie that lands every punch it throws, “Haywire” will more than satisfy.

“Haywire” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.