Silver Screen: Haywire ***1/2
If screenwriter Lem Dobbs didn't write Haywire specifically for star Gina Carano, then director Steven Soderbergh is an absolute genius of casting. Carano isn't an actress by trade but rather a real-life mixed martial arts fighter, and an uncommonly pretty one at that. With long, dark hair, big almond-shaped eyes, and a sturdy but alluring hourglass figure, she's an ideal fusion of classic beauty and modern assertiveness. Her soft-but-powerful look defies gender stereotypes without adopting masculine traits as a kind of knee-jerk contrarian reaction.
Carano is in many ways a perfect answer to a problem that's been notably vexing Hollywood for years now. The damsel in distress is a largely outmoded character, yet the movies are loath to relinquish their eye-candy cuties. Modern films, especially action and suspense flicks, feel obligated to make a passing nod toward the empowerment of their women characters without actually changing the narrative constructs and underlying philosophies. That's why the current incarnation of the movie girlfriend is still basically a pretty face to be threatened by the antagonist and provide further motive for the hero, but she has to be seen fighting back a little bit so the film doesn't seen antiquated.
An example of this phenomenon can be found in Kate Beckinsale's character in the god-awful Contraband (see below), wherein Beckinsale's dutiful wifey is beaten and sexually menaced, but not before throwing a punch or two. Yes, folks, that's Hollywood's version of feminism: The lady still gets tied to the tracks, but she gets to kick the mustachioed villain in the balls once before resuming victimhood.
Carano, however, is a sort of living embodiment of what Hollywood has been looking for all this time: a girl who can convincingly kick ass while still maintaining a kind of essential softness. Soderbergh certainly gets this, as he repeatedly follows her beating her way through an army of thugs with scenes in which she sits in tasteful silk nightgowns and sips glasses of white wine. She's damned impressive, and Soderbergh is deft at capturing her in all her complexity.
Here Carano stars as Mallory, hired muscle with a bent for espionage who works for a private military subcontractor. Through a fragmented narrative that leaps forward and backward in time, viewers learn that she has been set up after a disastrous assignment in Barcelona, where she was tasked with extracting a military-intelligence asset. Now back home, she's trying to clear her name and find out exactly who sold her out, all while being pursued by local law enforcement and cut off from her support system.
If that sounds like action-movie boilerplate, well, it is. Haywire's plot is elaborate and intentionally confounding, but only via vague dialogue and a non-linear structure. Try though it might to be coy and elusive, Haywire is exceptionally simplistic, its characters one-dimensional and possessed of uncomplicated motivations.
What Soderbergh is interested in here isn't story, but movement. The fight choreography is the raison d'cinema, and it's pretty badass. Carano obviously has no difficulty looking like a convincing fighter, and her male costars don't go easy on her. She's brutally beaten, punched, kicked, thrown off buildings and through glass doors, and she responds with a flurry of bone-crunching assaults that leave her assailants hobbled at best and morgue-bound at worst. It's reminiscent of the excellent combat sequences in the Bourne films, but the film speed is slower, the editing less choppy, and the sound effects toned down so the intensity of the action is both understated yet more immediate; imagine a neo-realist shooting a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie and you're getting close.
It's moderately fun stuff, but it never stops feeling like an exercise. Soderbergh's agenda is clear, sometimes too clear, as when Mallory dispatches a foe-- a would-be boyfriend, no less-- by sitting on his face and strangling him with her thick and lovely legs. It's a little too on the nose; we get it, Steve, she's tough but sexy, let's move on. That agenda, those ideas about gender in the Hollywood action thriller, are all compelling, but they are not enough in and of themselves to make a movie, and unfortunately the story itself, as well as all the other characters, are terribly uninteresting. Haywire doesn't feel like a feature film so much as an experiment, and that's fine, except this experiment costs exactly the same amount as a regular movie.
Alas, the astounding Carano is not much of an actress. It would be almost unfair if someone was that beautiful, tough, and talented in two disparate fields. She's not bad, she just can't carry a film when the action slows to a crawl, and in these moments she still seems like an object to be fetishized rather than a three-dimensional person with an inner life. She's not aided much by Dobbs's script, which is all razzle dazzle, or the parade of supporting characters, all of whom are played by top-flight actors-- Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton-- but none of whom gain any traction. She might make for a fine bit player herself, though. At the very least, she's a walking lesson to all the ingé nues pretending to be tough in their computer-generated imagery-enhanced superhero roles: This is what the real deal looks like.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.