Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire takes an interesting and seldom used approach to the spy action thriller: It strips away all visual and thematic pretensions and simply plunges headfirst into pure adrenaline-pumping espionage. I’m hard pressed to say that the story is simple, and yet it’s clear to me that everything unnecessary has been left out, leaving only that which must be there for the sake of advancement. Although the fight sequences are highly choreographed and not at all within the realm of possibility, they’re mercifully spared the phoniness and posturing of macho stunt spectaculars and martial arts epics; every punch, kick, jab, slap, uppercut, and body slam is an exercise in simple, direct brutality. Here is a film in which all the fat has been trimmed. It’s a lean, mean fighting machine.
I can’t help but wonder how something so difficult to follow can still manage to be so engrossing. The film weaves a convoluted web of intrigue that spans nations, professions, personal relationships, and ranks. Keeping track of the details is next to impossible, and yet the story is told with such relentless speed and razor-sharp precision that watching it is nothing short of hypnotic. I was especially taken with its visual style, which is sparse yet surprisingly bold. And while I’m usually not the first to recognize violence as entertainment, I found myself absorbed in the fight sequences, probably because they aren’t as glorified as they would be in most Hollywood action films. In spite of their brevity, they’re incredibly kinetic, and they’re not dramatized with a pounding rock underscore. We only have the sounds of pounding flesh and breaking furniture.
It tells the story of Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), a trained marine and a contractor for a private firm, which the American government relies on for covert operations. We can tell from the opening shot that she’s on the run. At the start of the film, she arrives at a small diner in upstate New York, where she’s approached by a fellow contractor named Aaron (Channing Tatum). He asks her to go with him. She refuses. The scene immediately shifts from tense to exciting when the two start fighting in clear view of the public. Mallory wards Aaron off by breaking his arm, intervenes with a random customer named Scott (Michael Angarano), and apprehends his car. Despite his obvious shock, Mallory takes him with her and tells him her story thus far. For as yet unknown reasons, she has him memorize names and locations.
For the next forty minutes or so, the film intercuts between the car ride and two of Mallory’s covert missions. One is in Barcelona, where she and Aaron were hired to rescue a kidnapped a journalist named Jiang (Anthony Brandon Wong) and deliver him to their contact, Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas). The other is in Dublin, where she and a British agent named Paul (Michael Fassbender) will pose as husband and wife and infiltrate the Rossborough House. I will not reveal the specifics of the latter mission. I will say that it leads to an unsettling turn of events: Mallory has been set up by her own firm, which, as fate would have it, is led by her ex-boyfriend, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). In the eyes of the American government, she’s now a fugitive. She spends the rest of the film solving the mystery behind the betrayal.
Along the way, we will also meet a government agent named Coblenz (Michael Douglas), who always seems to know more than he lets on, and Mallory’s father, John (Bill Paxton), a writer who lives in New Mexico and is well aware of her daughter’s profession. Rest assured, there will be plenty of hand-to-hand combat as the story progresses. There will even at one point by a chase on the streets, through the back alleys, and across the rooftops of Dublin, where Mallory moves with the stealth of an assassin as she’s being pursued by military men with guns. Although she lacks the mystique and solitary disposition of a samurai warrior, she is clearly an expert at what she does and is intensely focused even when under stress. She can’t possibly be emotionally walled off, for she cares for her father and was once in love with Kenneth. Having said that, she she is remarkably in control of her feelings and maintains an attitude of steely professionalism.
Much has been made of the casting of Gina Carano, mostly in regards to her experience as a mixed martial arts fighter and her appearance on the TV series American Gladiators. I agree that her physical strength gives the violent scenes in Haywire a certain authenticity. But let’s not short change her; she adds something to the film even when she isn’t fighting. In fact, let’s not short change anyone; all the actors in the film are well cast. I can’t pretend that I fully understood the plot, nor can I say that I was able to keep track of the details or even make sense of the reason Carano’s character was framed. But what the film lacked in clarity was more than made up for in spectacle, strength of character, excitement, and a very brisk pace (with a running time of just ninety-three minutes to boot).
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