If anyone were to be given an award for being a career renaissance man, Steven Soderbergh would certainly be the frontrunner. This versatile filmmaker has spent his career proving there’s no movie genre he’s not willing to take on, whether it’s a movie star-laden heist picture (Ocean’s Eleven), a political biography (Che), a Russian Sci-Fi remake (Solaris), an apocalyptic drama (Contagion), or in the case of his latest big-screen endeavour, Haywire, a Bourne Identity-inspired spy vs. spy action flick that isn’t quite the kick in the head it should be.
The sporadically entertaining yet surprisingly inert story comes from Lem Dobbs who previously gave us the similarly-themed (yet far superior) film The Limey. Soderbergh had Dobbs build the story around Mixed Martial Arts superstar Gina Carano who makes her feature film debut starring as Mallory Kane, a special-ops bad-ass with a tendency for getting into knock-down-drag-out fights with her male counterparts. It’s a great excuse for seeing Carano do what she does best…but is it a good enough reason to build a movie around? Sort of.
We first meet Mallory as she’s trekking across the frozen wasteland of upstate New York to rendezvous at a rundown diner with former co-agent Aaron (Channing Tatum). Aaron has been instructed by their boss to bring her in for questioning and needless to say, Mallory doesn’t want to go, leading to a tussle amongst the surprised diner patrons.
After a good samaritan named Scott (Michael Angarano) comes to Mallory’s aid, she commandeers his car and begins to tell him – and the audience – the story of how she ended up on the run. As they try to evade capture, Mallory rolls out her tale of her betrayal at the hands of her boss and ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) and the government contacts that may or may not be involved in attempting to hasten her demise.
As Mallory’s story unfolds, we get to meet the various players involved in the intrigue: Antonio Banderas is her Spanish contact for a recent rescue mission in Barcelona; Michael Fassbender (with his old-school James Bond-like charm dialled up to 11) is the dangerously smooth-talking British agent with whom she’s asked to team up on a follow-up job; Michael Douglas is her seemingly trustworthy government contact; and Bill Paxton is Mallory’s former Marine Father.
It’s a great cast that feels essentially wasted since the entire plot of the film is really just one giant McGuffin that allows Carano ample opportunities to show off her exemplary ass-kicking skills.
And exemplary they are. Audiences are way more likely to leave the theatre talking about Carano and Fassbender’s glass-shattering, bone-crunching hotel room fight than they will be debating plot points. But what Haywire lacks in cleverness, it attempts to make up for with sheer adrenaline and swagger.
That’s great, except if the whole point of the film’s existence is to watch a skilled fighter continually laying the beatdown on all those who cross her path, then the action scenes need to be both spectacularly choreographed and hard-hitting enough to take the audience’s breath away, especially in the post-Jason Bourne era. Unfortunately, much of the action plays out in a stilted, mechanical fashion that lacks the kinetic energy that makes the Bourne movies so much fun to watch.
Carano is engaging to watch on screen but she doesn’t show much range as an actress (she’s admitted that Soderbergh had to alter her voice and many of her line readings during post-production). Meanwhile, the rest of the usually excellent cast sleepwalks through on auto pilot spouting ridiculously rote lines of dialogue, presumably happy to add a Soderbergh film, no matter how minor, to their resumes.