The Gentle Touch
It was with some dismay that I learned of the plans to disband the collective of film-makers who operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (it surely being impossible for any single individual to direct so many films as diverse and accomplished as the ones with Soderbergh's name on them). More than in most cases, the presence of the Soderbergh name on a production is as close to a guarantee of quality as one can realistically expect, regardless of the tone or subject matter involved. The new Soderbergh movie, Haywire, continues this tradition – although, having effortlessly reinvented genres as disparate as the caper movie (with Ocean's Eleven), the true-life drama (Erin Brockovitch), the arty SF movie (Solaris), and the all-star disaster movie (Contagion), the Soderberghs have now effectively invented a unique genre of their own: the pro-celebrity cage-fighting movie.
Gina Carano (a former mixed martial arts fighter, ex-American Gladiator, and pretty much the textbook definition of a strapping lass) plays Mallory, a young woman who we first meet going into a diner in upstate New York. Here she meets Aaron (Channing Tatum), a young man of her acquaintance. After Aaron is ungallant enough to smash a cup of coffee over her head and pull a gun on her, this delicate young blossom of femininity wastes no time in beating him half to death and leaving in the car of another patron, to whom she explains The Story So Far.
Mallory is, of course, an ex-marine specialising in high-risk covert operations – a mercenary, on the books of Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), her ex-lover. After returning from a mission in Barcelona, and on the verge of quitting the company, Kenneth persuades Mallory to take on – oh ho ho! – one last job. She is to masquerade as the wife of MI6 agent Paul (Michael Fassbender) while he investigates a dubious chap in Dublin. However, it becomes apparent that Mallory has been told a pack of lies, and somebody wants her dead...
When I first saw the trailer for Haywire – tough but comely female lead, heavy action and martial arts content, dubiously twisty-looking plot, lashings of style – my reaction was 'Crikey, Luc Besson's really rushed his new movie out,' so similar to the likes of Nikita, Leon, and Colombiana did it appear. The appearance of Steven Soderbergh's name at the end rather discombobulated me. But why shouldn't Soderbergh give us his take on an action movie? He's done practically everything else.
And yet, there's a sense in which the highest compliment I can pay Haywire is that it's exactly like a Besson movie, but stripped of all the usual excess and with a startling infusion of taste and restraint added to the mix. Not to mention a very distinguished cast – in addition to McGregor, Tatum, and Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton also show up and do their usual reliable work.
One gets the sense that this gallimaufrey of talent may have been recruited to make up for a perceived weakness in Carano as a leading lady. Given that she was allegedly recruited after one of the Soderberghs saw her fighting on TV, this would not come as a surprise – I'm reminded of the bet one Hollywood producer made his golf partner that he could make the world's least likely person a major star, with the result being the career of Steven Seagal – but to be fair to her Gina Carano acquits herself perfectly acceptably.
That said, the script is carefully written so that Carano has the minimum to do acting-wise – Mallory's not the most demonstrative of individuals – and gets the maximum chance to let rip in the action sequences. Just running down the street Carano looks unstoppable, but in the fight scenes she is simply astounding. Haywire almost completely avoids the martial arts movie cliches – hero takes on twelve people in a garage, hero fights giant, hero fights lead henchman – in favour of a series of one-on-one fights between its lead and proper Hollywood A-listers. In terms of realistic action, these are exemplary in every way: the sequence in which Carano and Fassbender kick the living crap out of each other at some length in a Dublin hotel room is one of the most visceral, exciting movie fights I've ever seen.
I suppose one could make the criticism that Mallory Kane falls victim to the usual problem afflicting action heroines, in that her characterisation doesn't extend much beyond 'man with breasts' in any positive sense. Certainly, working with a less talented director, Carano as a screen presence could become as clunky a cipher as Van Damme or Seagal, which may be an issue if her career has any longevity.
To be honest the film does a good job of walking the tightrope between working on a cinematic level and simply staying realistic. One friend of mine didn't like it, saying it was boring, for this reason. And the action is a little thinner on the ground than in some movies of this ilk. You really have to stay with the plot and trust that everything will be explained come the end, which it is – but on the other hand, just when most action movies would start building to a riotously implausible climax, Haywire resolves its story in a much simpler and unexpectedly low-key (but still satisfying) way.
This really didn't bother me – Haywire is an immaculately made and pleasingly bare-boned action movie. It's the kind of thing Soderbergh knocks out on a lazy afternoon, managing to surpass genre specialists in the process. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although this was largely due to the Gina Carano-beats-up-famous-actors schtick. My literary advisor and I thought this was a brilliant idea and within five minutes of leaving the theatre had drawn up our own list of people we wanted to see her batter to a pulp in the sequel: Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Orlando Bloom, Ryan Reynolds... There's a lot of potential here. Notable careers have been built on considerably less, and I'll be very interested to see if Gina Carano can live up to the potential she shows so devastatingly here.