Gina Carano. Remember the name.
In just three years she rose to fame as one of the world’s leading Female Mixed-Martial-Arts fighters, with a stunning, undefeated 7-win run that culminated in a now-questionable loss against an opponent who has since been caught taking steroids for her fights. Although she hasn’t fought since that controversial match, her story has far from ended in tragedy, being picked up by acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh for his latest film, Haywire, a punchy, unusually stylish production that is arguably the best debut feature she could have ever hoped for.
Masterfully tackling yet another genre, Soderbergh expertly manages an action-dominated spy thriller, defying expectations most notably in terms of the style; a classy tone, seventies-inspired score, and refreshingly unusual editing coming together to great effect – offering up a superior backdrop with which this new kick-ass action heroine can make her mark.
Revisiting this title after covering it for the cinema release, the following text is largely adapted from the earlier review, here.
Carano plays Mallory Kane, a highly trained covert operative for a private military contractor, often dispatched to do the dirty, unsanctioned missions that the US Government does not want to be tied to. After her latest operation does not quite go according to plan, she is forced to go off the grid, escape and evade, with both the authorities and other covert assassins dispatched to find her and bring her in. Who betrayed her – and why – and will she be able to stay alive long enough to find out?
Excepting the omission of the amnesia plot tool, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were reading a script outline for just another Bourne rip-off – another one of these betrayed-and-left-for-dead tales which are all the rage at the moment. Even though the story is really nothing that we haven’t come across before, it’s surprising what some classy style, refreshingly different editing, and unusual scoring can do for such a fairly standard vehicle. Oh, that and having a kick-ass female lead who can actually kick ass.
Soderbergh is quite an unusual filmmaker: he appears to be capable of crafting distinctively stylish, atmospheric and engaging movies in whatever genre he chooses. From his indie drama debut Sex, Lies and Videotape to his revenge thriller The Limey; from his class-action legal drama Erin Brokovich to his ensemble crime comedy caper Ocean’s Eleven, he’s tackled mammoth biopics (Che), intense psychological sci-fi dramas (Solaris), comedy dramas (The Informant!), film noirs (The Good German), reality exposés (Full Frontal), experimental dramas (The Girlfriend Experience) and viral outbreak thrillers (Contagion). He is capable of turning his hand to mainstream Hollywood productions and unconventional independent projects alike.
Often taking on multiple production roles in the films that he directs, including screenwriter, editor and cinematographer, perhaps his most celebrated project has been Traffic, the big-screen adaptation of the acclaimed British TV series, Traffik. An ensemble intersecting-character-drama, it is arguably the defining example of all of his filmmaking skills combining to form a perfect whole – from his editing and directing styles to his film stock choices, from his seamless blending of multiple story arcs to his effortless development of numerous different characters, it has frequently been hailed as being his best movie.
Haywire is not only another prime example of Soderbergh being able to adeptly tackle any genre he sets his sights on, it is also another one of his combined efforts, acting as both cinematographer (under an alias) and director on this project. As such, his distinctive style is stamped on the piece and infused every scene, almost every frame, with an unusual edge that sets it apart from its counterparts. Whether it’s the way in which he cuts to different film stocks, or the introduction of his various locations and numerous flashbacks, Soderbergh makes his film his own, most notably shooting the close combat sequences in a refreshingly straightforward fashion which does not blur the fast moves like the steadicam-shot Bourne Trilogy fights, or even Michael Bay’s Transformers Trilogy combat sequences. You can see all the moves, gape at the brutality and revel in the skill of the opponents here, and it’s quite unlike the combat seen in any of this movie’s counterparts.
Similarly, whilst Joe Wright’s excellent Saoirse Ronan vehicle Hanna already provided us with something of a female-driven take on Bourne (not to mention Angelina Jolie’s more mainstream Salt), Soderbergh still manages to add a new dimension to the betrayed-spy-on-the-run sub-genre by taking things to the next level and actually casting a real-life Mixed Martial Arts fighter in the lead role. Watching Haywire, you soon realise that the woman who is performing all of these crazy-fast moves, ground-pounding blows and hair-raising stunts is actually capable of much of this in real life.
To this end, Gina Carano was a real find. Not only can she genuinely kick ass, but she actually looks surprisingly gorgeous to boot (something which cannot be said of all of her MMA opponents, not least the very masculine ‘Cyborg’). And not only can she genuinely kick ass and effortlessly look good but she can actually act too! Carano is really quite naturally charming, exuding a charisma and magnetism that is arguably quite hard to find, particularly in a debut performance. She defines the action heroine of the piece, Mallory Kane, as being strong, self-confident, quick-thinking and good at improvisation, whilst also adding in hints of character vulnerability, shyness (particularly when it comes to presenting herself in a classically sexy way) and warmth. She’s got a wonderful contagious smile and exhibits an almost unstoppable resolve, and all of the above elements combined make her character here one of the all-time great female action leads.
I honestly cannot wait to see more of Carano, and maybe even more of Mallory Kane, and MMA’s loss is certainly Hollywood’s gain as I can see this upcoming actress easily graduating to Next Big Thing status in a way that hasn’t been seen for decades (think of all those WWE wrestlers who have attempted to make the transition to ‘acting’ like John Cena and Steve ‘Recoil’ Austin and you can immediately see that Carano is in an entirely different lead).
If I had but one criticism of the performance captured here, it’s that what we see isn’t technically 100% natural Carano: Soderbergh has apparently tweaked the MMA fighter-turned-actress’s voice in post-production to give it a slightly deeper, more classically femme fatale edge. It’s a shame because I have to now wonder whether it would have made any difference to my enjoyment of the piece had I seen the film with her normal voice; whilst interview recordings with the rising star do showcase a slightly higher, arguably more chirpy Californian edge to her speech, it’s impossible to tell without seeing her in a movie performing with her naturally recorded voice. On the plus side, at least in terms of Haywire, it probably only further adds to this particular character, certainly drawing yet more parallels with Soderbergh’s Jennifer Lopez character from Out of Sight: the kick-ass heroine of Elmore Leonard’s crime novels, US Marshall Karen Sisco. Indeed, Sisco feels like Mallory Kane’s Latino cousin, albeit without quite as many kick-ass special operative moves.
As usual Soderbergh projects appear to garner the interest of just about every actor on the planet, and whilst this isn’t his usual ensemble piece (like Contagion, Traffic or the Ocean’s films), it comes pretty close, with an eclectic blend of familiar faces in unusual, often against-type roles. Ewan McGregor (The Island, Ghost Writer) makes for a fairly competent nemesis, albeit falling short in the action department, playing Mallory’s boss and ex-lover. Bill Paxton (Apollo 13, Predator 2) is remarkably good as the knowledgeable, protective ex-military father, a role which was originally supposed to go to Dennis Quaid, but which Paxton does well in. Antonio Banderas (Mask of Zorro) is also surprisingly effective as one of the ‘clients’ involved in the conspiracy, and Michael Douglas (Basic Instinct) gets a slightly more meaty but somewhat familiar role as a Government official intrigued by Mallory’s plight and sensing an opportunity amidst the maelstrom. Douglas has worked with Soderbergh a couple of times before, and it’s no surprise that he was cast in this position. We also get a cameo for French director Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) and an extended cameo for acclaimed actor Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Jane Eyre).
It’s a great cast, but, aside from the refreshing casting of an unknown in the lead role, the only really big shock comes from the presence of Channing Tatum as one of the fellow operatives that Mallory later has to contend with. Now I don’t rate Tatum at all, his film and performance history speak for themselves, and, amidst titles like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and the uninspired Fighting, he has established himself as being something of an unholy blend of the worst acting traits of Orlando Bloom and John Cena combined, with a dash of Paul Walker added in for good measure.
I was particularly worried about him having what I like to call the “50 Cent” effect on the latest Al Pacino cop thriller, Son of No One, but actually he’s one of the few good things about that terrible mess of a movie. And he’s also pretty good here. He’s not great, and certainly nothing worth writing home about, but he manages to play a marginally unusual character, effortlessly making the guy very easy to dislike, and then bringing him around a tiny bit towards the end. I don’t think he’s going to go on to be the next Di Caprio or Fassbender, but he still far from lets the side down and it would appear that Soderbergh has managed to bring out the best in him. That said, I’m still not too sure on the Director’s intention to cast Tatum in the leading role in both of his next two – and reputedly his last two – movies; I think that’s a risk that may not pay off.
Still, the well-chosen supporting cast are just an added bonus to what is, essentially a superb lead vehicle for Gina Carano to make her acting debut with. She may not be the person who draws you in to watch the film in the first place, but she’s the person you’ll likely most be interested in by the end of it all. In fact, arguably it takes Soderbergh just 5 minutes to establish Carano as both a kick-ass on-screen fighter and a competent actress in a prologue sequence which immediately cuts to the chase.
Are there flaws? Yes, this is far from a perfect movie, and will likely never be regarded up there amidst Soderbergh’s great efforts – but it’s still an example of his being able to turn his hand to any genre, even outright action, and provide an unusual, stylish and viscerally entertaining production. That the first fight sequence at the start of the film actually ends up being the best fight sequence in the entire film is only a testament to how good it is, and not a measure of how poor the successive scenes are. Indeed, it’s the one that shows Kane to be at her most physically vulnerable, and perhaps most well-matched, and it’s this that demands your attention. The hotel room sequence further in is also a standout scene, and one which many will probably regard as being a close second best fight scene in the film. Of course Carano is not just a genuinely scary-tough fighter, but she is also great in the escape-and-evasion sequences, taking to the rooftops in Dublin much like Bourne might do; watching her opponents in the reflections of shop windows, scaling walls and skipping over moving cars in a way that makes it look easy. Sure, towards the latter end of the film, the fights get more confused, and the final confrontation – whilst it tries its best not to be anticlimactic – was never going to be as spectacular as those before it purely because of the opponent she was facing.
If you’re going to quibble about the script, aside from it being a tried-and-tested Bourne routine, there’s a questionable plot device that Soderbergh employs to narrate the story so far, and allow for the use of plenty of flashbacks to fill in the gaps. This basically involves Carano’s Mallory Kane recounting her woes, in detail, to an unsuspecting innocent bystander-come-hostage who appears to serve no purpose other than to enable our protagonist to fill us, as an audience, in on all the juicy details of how she ended up on the run. This wouldn’t be so bad, but Soderbergh’s desperate attempts to weave this extraneous character into the plot feel contrived at best, and often just highlight the fact that he is basically saying “48 hours earlier”, but in a different language.
At the end of the day Haywire isn’t quite the audio/visual experience of Wright’s breathtaking Hanna, nor is it as effortlessly cool as the likes of Soderbergh’s own Out of Sight (despite having a very similar in feel soundtrack which, for the most part, just about works with the action-driven proceedings). It’s not up there with the Bourne Supremacy, although it comes close to matching the first Bourne chapter and probably bests the third one, not least in terms of originality.
Watch this to see just how effective a real-life fighter can be in an action film. Watch this to discover Gina Carano, perhaps for the first time, and take in what might be the start of a fantastic career in the movie industry. She will no doubt be back and, with any luck, she’ll bring Mallory Kane back with her. Recommended.
“I’ve never done a woman before.”
“I wouldn’t think of her as a woman: that would be a mistake.”
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