No one can be trusted in Steven Soderbergh’s new taut slice of action “Haywire.” Not even, perhaps, Steven Soderbergh.
The film starts with the story already underway. Mallory Kane (played by former MMA fighter, Gina Carano) limps into a truck stop cafe, bruises just beginning to fade from around her jaw.
After a brutal and uncomfortable melee across the lunch counter with what might be an old flame, Soderbergh begins parsing out information as to where we are (upstate New York), why we’re here (revenge) and who this woman is (a super soldier working for the U.S. government).
It is a disarming — if not the most genius — narrative device. But Lem Dobbs’ script is light and quick, suited perfectly to Soderbergh’s restrained cool. The sense of voyeurism keeps us level-headed and attentive, even in scenes of unimaginable tension.
Mallory walks us back in time through the rescue of a hostage in Barcelona, where her boss and lover, Kenneth (a delightfully cowardly Ewan McGregor), has planted the seeds of betrayal. Carano looks the part, but moves in and out of embodying the atmosphere Soderbergh has created. A lot of fuss has been made over the fighter’s acting debut, but the performance is largely clunky.
Carano still has a tin ear for the musicality of Dobbs’ script, holding a little too tightly to readings of lines that seem to ask for the actor to toss them off with an easy hand. Soderbergh’s strength is tricking viewers into thinking they’re not watching a movie at all and Carano is one dissonant note in his cool breeze.
Carano relaxes into the role, however, as the story unfolds. And if some of the quieter moments still look like an MMA fighter acting like an actor, any doubt of what Carano is doing here is erased in the film’s exquisite fight scenes. Finally, her effort serves her.
Paired entirely with male opponents, Mallory absorbs pain and transmutes it into superhuman strength. The hotel room brawl between Carano and another slippery agent, played by Michael Fassbender, is some of Soderbergh’s sexiest violence scenes since Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in “Out of Sight.”
At its best and worst moments, “Haywire” seems to be several movies at once. It is blockbuster action disguised as a kitchen-sink drama — or the other way around. The distinction can be confusing.
Except for some ill-advised regressions into the Isaac Hayes underscore of his “Ocean’s Eleven” series, Soderbergh keeps the fight scenes largely silent, lending them a reality that feels emotional. Though Mallory is powerful, her story is kept planted firmly on planet Earth, making the blood all the more frightening.
But our investment in the bloodshed is cut short by an abrupt conclusion that presumes we care less than we do. Similar to the slick emotional depths and shallows of his 2009 film, “The Girlfriend Experience,” Soderbergh’s strength of reality can verge on a missed opportunity.
His avoidance of sentimentality and artifice is precisely what draws us in. But Soderbergh is so averse to drama that we are not always given a point of entry, as though he doesn’t care enough himself to tie up his own story’s loose ends. The end simply walks away from a movie we’d thought was putting up a fight.
As a simple piece of action, “Haywire” is a thrill ride of expert construction. But if we call the film something more complicated — as it seems to want to be — Soderbergh pulls his best punches.Contact Stephen Drum.