NEW YORK –– With the fairly suspenseful but frequently brutal thriller “Haywire” (Relativity), filmmaker Steven Soderbergh tries his hand at action-oriented espionage. Stylish and spare, the result plays like the work of a talented yet restless director ticking another genre off his list.
What moviegoers may appreciate most about “Haywire” is that it clocks in at a swift 93 minutes. What they’ll likely find most disconcerting is its casual approach to violence, even after allowing for the life-and-death nature of international spying and covert military operations.
In recent years, this terrain has been dominated by the “Bourne” trilogy and slickly outlandish fare such as the Angelina Jolie vehicle “Salt.” Soderbergh attempts to lend some authenticity to his variation by casting mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano in the lead role. That choice, together with the knowledge that the film’s working title was “Knockout,” provides an accurate barometer of what’s in store.
Carano plays Mallory Kane, a former Marine engaged in black ops for a private company contracted by the U.S. government. We first meet the lethal brunette on the lam in upstate New York. How she became a fugitive is told in flashback, beginning with a Barcelona job during which she and several colleagues, including gung-ho Aaron (Channing Tatum), free a Chinese dissident being held by unidentified thugs.
Next, Mallory’s boss and former boyfriend Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) sends her to Dublin to work alongside British secret agent Paul (Michael Fassbender). It’s during this assignment that she’s double-crossed and forced to go rogue to find out who has betrayed her and why. American spymaster Coblenz (Michael Douglas) is somehow involved, as is Spanish diplomat Rodrigo, limned by Antonio Banderas.
Soderbergh’s lively cinematography – along with a jaunty musical score, glamorous international locales, and a seasoned supporting cast – gives the picture ample flair. But since the plot and dialogue exist solely to provide Carano the chance to display her considerable fighting skills, there’s not much substance to be found. Attempts to explore character and tease out the human drama in the scenario don’t register.
The intense, precisely choreographed hand-to-hand fight sequences, along with several exciting chases, stand out. Kudos to Carano for performing her own acrobatic stunts (without the use of wires or special effects) and to Soderbergh for capturing them with his typical energy and panache. Unfortunately, Mallory shows no mercy as she tracks down her betrayers. Although she’s clearly the wronged party, her ruthless response is nonetheless morally culpable.
Close combat is Carano’s metier; as for Soderbergh, with “Haywire,” he once again demonstrates that, though he’s adept at making different kinds of films, he has yet to master any one form. Obviously enthused by the challenges of staging and shooting a certain type of action film, and the opportunity to pay homage to its progenitors, he seems uninterested in its thematic or ethical content.
The door is left open to a sequel but don’t expect Soderbergh to be at the helm. No doubt he’ll have moved on to something completely different.
The film contains much fierce hand-to-hand violence and gunplay, brief gore, an implied nonmarital encounter, at least one use of profanity and of rough language, some crude terms and an obscene gesture. The Catholic News Service classification is L – limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R – restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.