Whatever its faults, Stephen Soderbergh’s grrl-power, globe-trotting action flick Haywire does one thing very right. Unlike other recent distaff takes on the Bourne franchise, like Hanna with its 90-pound preteen super-soldier or any Angelina Jolie movie, you actually believe lead actress Gina Carano (a real-life mixed martial artist) could seriously kick your ass.
Carano plays Mallory Kane, one of these modern superheroes we like to pretend works behind the scenes carrying out the government’s dirty work, expert at hand-to-hand combat, hacking, motorcycle racing, and shooting, and yet who can still fill out a cocktail dress. After an operation in Barcelona—true to its genre, this film features a bevy of picturesque foreign locales—Kane gets burned by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor, slithery), her handler and ex-lover. She then has to clear her name as she unravels a lot of rather generic skullduggery, testing her wits against an MI6 agent (the ubiquitous Michael Fassbinder), a duped colleague (Channing Tatum), who is yet another ex-lover, and some shady government figures (Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas). Eventually, she enlists the help of her father (a criminally underused Bill Paxton), a Marine-turned-writer, the only person alive she can trust. (She might be a ruthless professional who thinks nothing of executing defeated enemies, but by gum, she’s also a daddy’s girl—and a fellow Marine.)
Unlike his better films (Traffic, even Contagion), this is Soderbergh the pastiche connoisseur. He’s interested in evoking and playing with the tropes of the spy caper, trotting them out for you to recognize and possibly to laugh at. Characterization is of the I-wrote-this-in-nine-days, Mickey Spillane school. At one point during a stakeout, a photograph of a criminal kidnapper is covered with a post-it note saying, “Bad Guy #1.” The script, by Lem Dobbs (who worked with Soderbergh on Kafka and The Limey), never gets deeper than that. Even an ill-fated Chinese journalist Kane is tasked to rescue—sort of the human MacGuffin of the piece—is knowingly referred to by a villain as a dissident, whistleblower, and spy. Why should it matter which one he is—aren’t you in on the joke?
Still, even if you’re not savoring all the ironies, you’ll actually find a lot to enjoy here. It’s a slick, artfully filmed and edited genre exercise, with a delicious, 1970s retro-ish score by David Holmes to chuff things along. True, there’s little or no real emotional involvement by anyone, but it has some crackerjack fights. Carano’s fighting skills are put to great use in stunt-heavy brawls in hotel rooms, on rooftops, and under a beautifully filmed sunset on a Mexican beach. (Soderbergh is, as usual, responsible for the lensing work, here under a pseudonym.) As a 90-minute thrill ride, Haywire is hard to top, and has lessons a-plenty for its more earnest peers.
None of this is to forgive Soderbergh’s rather clueless pronouncement in the press notes, in which he says his film is “Pam Grier meets Hitchcock.” Gina, with her tough-chick build and slightly wooden affect, is more Cynthia Rothrock than Pam Grier. And Soderbergh is, of course, no Hitchcock. Although, I’ll admit, the nearly perfect opening scene in an upstate New York diner is so packed with tension and cruelty it could have put a smile on the old master’s face.