HAYWIRE:  Worth A Ticket – For the Gasp-Inducing Fight Scenes Alone
You might think that if a major, celebrated filmmaker were to take the extraordinary step of announcing, years in advance, that he had set the time for his retirement from movies, and that, even though he was only middle-aged, he would at the very least be taking an extended break from the medium after he had completed a certain set of particular films–well, you might expect that those films must express a summing up of his world view, a final statement about his ideas about mankind’s place in the universe.  If the filmmaker were Steven Soderbergh, though–as in fact it is–those remaining works include a movie about male strippers, an HBO biography of Liberace, a film version of the old TV series The Man From UNCLE, and HAYWIRE, the action movie that was tonight’s “secret screening” at the AFI Film Festival, and which is scheduled to reach theatres in early 2012.

Haywire was, as Soderbergh explained in a Q&A, very explicitly designed as a showcase for its star, the real-life MMA fighter Gina Carano, whom Soderbergh happened to see in a nationally televised bout.  Soderbergh has long been fascinated by toying with the interplay of real life with fictional stories; aside from casting non-professionals in his low budget Bubble, his Ocean’s 12 included the strange plotline that featured Julia Roberts as a character who resembled–and ultimately impersonated–Julia Roberts.  In particular, Haywire and its casting recalls Soderbergh’s decision to cast porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Even though that film had no explicit sex at all, he seemed to want the lead role played by someone who everyone knew had had the experience of performing sexual acts for pay, just as Carano, who simulates injuring her fellow actors in Haywire, has earned her living battling people for real.
Of course, the great benefit of casting an actual fighter in an action movie is that there’s no need for stunt performers, and Soderbergh seems to have convinced Carano’s professional actor co-stars, including Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender, to handle their fight scenes themselves as well.  Thus the fight sequences in Haywire are ultra-thrilling and spectacularly intimate, with none of the need to cut away from faces and employ masking angles that almost every action movie you’ve ever seen has had to do.  The fights, which are staged without musical or editing hype, have a measure of reality that’s the absolute opposite of the grand-opera fakery we get in big-budget Hollywood epics.
Those scenes are by far the highlights of Haywire, which is otherwise slick and enjoyable (especially a very Bourne-like chase scene through Dublin) without being terribly interesting.  Mallory (Carano) is a black ops agent for an independent company employed by the US and other governments.  When she and her partner (Tatum) are sent to Barcelona to rescue a hostage Chinese journalist, it’s the start of a string of not particularly surprising betrayals that sends her on a journey of revenge throughout Europe and the US.  Among the other operatives she encounters are Fassbender, McEwan (as her boss and former lover), Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas, with Bill Paxton as her supportive dad.  Soderbergh plays some of the time-shifting games he enjoys so much, as the first half of the movie has an awkward flashback structure in which Mallory is telling the story thus far to a boy she’s taken temporary hostage (Michael Angarano), but that doesn’t disguise the fact that the plot and characters are paper-thin.
As an actress, Carano has plenty of charisma and beauty, and along with her phenomenal physical skills, that’s probably enough to make her an action star; whether she can actually act will be a question for another movie.  (She’s unable to suggest any convincing emotional connection to McGregor’s character, past or present, although that may be a shortcoming of the script more than her performance.)  Soderbergh has supported her with that top-notch supporting cast, and they handle most of what heavy lifting Lem Dobbs’ script requires (Fassbender is particularly smooth).  Soderbergh serves as his own cinematographer as usual (under his pseudonym of Peter Andrews), and the movie is much more attractive to watch than his (deliberately) sickly work in The Informant and Contagion.  The editing is swift, and David Holmes’ score propels the pace in a coolly intense way.

Haywire is hardly a major piece of work for Soderbergh, although it’s quite effective and exciting on its own limited terms.  It’s the filmmaker’s own fault that we expect his (presumptive) last works to have some added value; if he’s really going to leave, he still owes us a finale bigger than this one.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."