A straight-up action picture may sound unusual coming from Steven Soderbergh, but as he's repeatedly demonstrated throughout his career, he's keen to experiment with every genre imaginable. And if you look closely at his latest, "Haywire," you'll find it reveals glimmers of some of his greatest hits.
It's a revenge thriller like "The Limey" (and comes from the same screenwriter, Lem Dobbs). It features a color-coded palette scheme to correspond with each new location in this globe-trotting tale, like "Traffic." It has a '70s-style aesthetic sensibility reminiscent of "The Informant!" It boasts an all-star cast like Soderbergh's "Ocean's" movies, "Full Frontal" and, most recently, "Contagion." But at its center is an actress who'd never appeared in a major feature film before, like "The Girlfriend Experience" and "Bubble."
So since we're in the midst of making comparisons, we'll just say that "Haywire" feels like minor Soderbergh: zippy, hugely entertaining and well-crafted as always (since he once again serves as his own cinematographer and editor), but not one of his more important films in the broad scheme of things.
It does, however, mark the auspicious film debut of MMA superstar Gina Carano as special-ops bad-ass Mallory Kane. Carano had never acted before, and not only did she do all her own stunts, she had to do them in a way that she wouldn't injure her male co-stars, including Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum. Her dialogue delivery may seem a bit stiff - and she has acknowledged that Soderbergh made some tweaks to her voice in post-production - but she has tremendous presence: an intriguing mix of muscular power and eye-catching femininity.
Mallory works for a private contractor that performs secret missions for the U.S. government. Her latest required her and her team to rescue a Chinese journalist who'd been kidnapped and was being held captive in Barcelona. The mission itself (pretty much) went down as planned, but afterward she finds she's been set up. Now, her task is to figure out who's double-crossed her and why.
All of this takes place out of chronological order as it hops around between upstate New York, Barcelona, Washington, Dublin, the scrub-brushed buttes of New Mexico and a Mexican beach at sunset. (That last location is one of the most beautiful, with the warm, jagged rocks serving as a striking backdrop for one of the film's most intense fights.) Mallory tells her story to the poor schmo whose car she has to borrow (played by Michael Angarano) for escape; it's intentionally disorienting, but that's part of the fun.
Among the excellent cast, McGregor plays Mallory's obviously slimy boss, with whom she shares some sort of nebulous romantic history. Tatum is her partner on the Barcelona job, who may or may not be trustworthy. Fassbender is the British agent with whom she's asked to team up on a follow-up mission; their scenes smolder with an old-school James Bond sense of glamour and intrigue, as well as danger. Michael Douglas plays Mallory's government contact and the one person she seems to be able to trust aside from her father (Bill Paxton) who, like her, is a former Marine. And Antonio Banderas is her Spanish connection, a role he plays in almost as cartoonish a fashion as his "Puss in Boots" character.
Regardless of the setting, the opponent or their motives, Soderbergh is smart enough to emphasize Carano's strengths. He lets the elaborate fight scenes play out - lets us see every kick, punch and body slam - without a lot of needless edits and even without any music. The battles provide their own rhythm, and afterward you may feel as if you've been worked over as well. But in a good way.
"Haywire," a Relativity Media release, is rated R for some violence. Running time: 93 minutes. Three stars out of four.