Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire is a brutal, efficient thriller, one that oozes style and menace. Its tight screenplay strips down the story and character to their bare essentials. We may only understand a fraction of who is double crossing whom, but murky intrigue is immaterial when the hero’s motives are ruthlessly pure. Under Soderbergh’s confident direction, the fight sequences – as well as the moments preceding them – are masterfully constructed. Clear, fluid action sequences pump up the suspense, so the violence is cathartic and, well, a whole of lot fun.
MMA fighter Gina Carano stars as Mallory, a superbly-trained spy for hire. Her handler/ex-flame is Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), who arranges contracts with Coblenz (Michael Douglas) and Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), two sleazy-yet-sophisticated middle men. After an assignment in Barcelona goes awry, Kenneth barely gives Mallory a chance to rest. She’s back on a plane to Dublin, where she serves as eye candy for Paul (Michael Fassbender), an MI6 agent. Mallory has her suspicions about Paul, which are well-founded since he eventually attempts to beat her to death. After a breathtaking escape, Mallory is now an international fugitive. What’s her solution? Get to the bottom of the betrayal, and kill whoever is responsible.
Unlike other recent actioners, Haywire has no explosions and infrequent gun fire. In fact, the movie is relatively quiet. Even car chases, typically the most kinetic trope of similar movies, unfold at a nervy, deliberate pace. Still, the best sequences involve unarmed combat, which happen without music, instead focusing on the low thuds of fists/feet against flesh. Before patiently coiling up the tension, Soderbergh films the fights with ample medium shots, so the action unfolds with logic and visual fidelity. Blows land awkwardly and we see the physical toll they take, making this the most realistic depiction of martial arts since Friedkin’s The Hunted. When there is a soundtrack – the score by David Holmes is infectiously funky – it supplements the unforced style.
The screenplay, written by Lem Dobbs, recalls David Mamet in the way it uses terse shorthand. Because characters communicate with the fewest words possible, their professionalism is all the more plausible. As with The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh chooses a leading lady whose day job makes her an unlikely, albeit perfect candidate for the material. Mallory is an uncomplicated character, and Carano makes little attempt give her nuance. Instead, she is taciturn and forceful; she plays Mallory with single-mindedness and bouts of vulnerability, traits that establish an early audience rapport. The more experienced actors, Fassbender and Douglas in particular, all have fun by adding an air of cynical irony to their roles. Only Mallory’s accomplices, her father (Bill Paxton) and a carjacking victim (Michael Angarano), act completely straight.
Midway through Mallory’s pummeling of an armed policeman, I realized I’m practically pre-programmed to love Haywire. On-screen violence is what first made me fall in love with film, so the best thrillers bring me back to my earliest, most ingrained sense of cinematic pleasure. Though he’s never made a straight-action film before, no genre is seemingly beyond Soderbergh’s reach. Based on the success of Haywire, I hope the reports of his retirement are wildly exaggerated. Few directors have the chops to deliver something this economical, packed with precision and craft.