Late Pass: Steven Soderberg’s Haywire

“I’ve never done a woman before”

“Oh you shouldn’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.”

So says spec-ops contractor Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) to Paul (Michael Fassbinder), charging him with terminating Mallory Kane, Kenneth’s one-time lover and soon to be set-up employee. It would be our mistake as well to think of Mallory Kane as a woman, or just a woman. Though incredibly attractive, the male gaze dissipates as soon as Kane, played by Gina Carano, starts punching ass. Clearly this is not somebody to fuck with. While there are great examples of female spy movies, Haywire answers to the mostly male focused genre with a strong female protagonist that is resourceful, brutal, and more importantly realistically drawn.

This realism comes from Gina Carano, an MMA star director Steven Soderberg happened to come across and decided to build a vehicle around. This plucking of untrained actors has precedence in Soderberg’s career: in 2008 he cast prolific porn star Sasha Grey in his film The Girlfriend Experience. Soderberg must be on to something, because the casting of Carano in Haywire pays off in immensely satisfying ways. Carano is a physical marvel, pulling of knotty and swift martial arts moves that are painfully crushing and coherent. It’s surprising that in such a stylish genre exercise, the one thing that remains unexaggerated is Carano’s economical and brutal ass kicking.

Told in achronolgical flashbacks typical of Soderberg, Haywire lays out Kane’s spree of whomping ass in a fluid rhythm of set pieces, street scenes, and hair-wire escapes. Unlike many disjointed narratives, Haywire’s structure deepens the mystery and the power of its main character. Although we do learn much about who Kane is throughout the film, the lasting effect of Haywire’s pieces is that she is a resolute and dangerous character; not quite cold and unfeeling, but something to be in awe of, something to fear. Something pure and survival driven, especially in the film’s shroud of clients, contractors, and government agencies.

At times it can seem that Carano gives a dry performance one would expect from an untrained actor. But this dryness befits the character of Mallory Kane, who is all business, even if that business is the Ass-Kicking business, LLC. Carano’s low-key line readings contrast wonderfully with Soderberg’s spry, comic tone, giving the whole picture an impossibly cool feel.

As such the film can feel less of a cinematic experience than a competent exercise in the spy genre format. We’ve got the standard beats: the evasions in crowds, the double-crossings and betrayals, and a brassy spy soundtrack. Given the film’s short run time, its lean and mostly uncomplicated plot structure, and its short and brutal action sequences, Haywire seems to come and go in a bright effervescent puff.

But to the filmmakers’ credit they don’t make Jane Bond. Instead what they’ve made is a film of great intelligence and understanding of spy-genre tropes, transporting the feel of 60s spy flicks to the geopolitical grime of contemporary times. Probably the most surprising and unexpected thing about Haywire is how modest it is, despite how many stylish elements are on display. In the Soderberg canon, it probably has more in common with Out of Sight, Ocean’s 11-13, and The Informant! than it does with the director’s previous collaboration with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, The Limey. That film, like Haywire, is spare and excised, but the key difference is Haywire’s slight irreverence.

Soderberg may be a director with a lack of design and definitive style. What makes him a great filmmaker, however, is his service to strategy, how he works within his means, and how he follows his restless whims. (SEE: Magic Mike, his long-gestating Liberace biopic, and his on-again off-again on-again Cleopatra musical). Haywire is certainly not his best film, nor is it Soderberg’s best collaboration with Dobbs (I would pick The Limey for both). But it is nevertheless a fleet movie that never over-reaches and never condescends, never over-exaggerates its own coolness. Like star Gina Carano, Haywire is a swift, beautiful, brutal machine.

— CD