Taking someone from the athletic field and plugging them into a film isn’t exactly a new trend. Hell, if there wasn’t a National Football League, there probably wouldn’t even be a viable blaxploitation genre. Plus, how many wrestlers have tried to make the move to movies? Sometimes you get The Rundown. And then sometimes you get Santa with Muscles.
In this case, the non-actor in question is Gina Carano, a mixed-martial artist with looks enough to have emerged as a fan-favorite in the sport. I’m sure her expertise in the field helps, though tennis players have certainly been able to get by without it. Luckily for her, director Steven Soderbergh constructs Haywire in such a way that it comes across as a stylish 70’s-style thriller rather than, say, Gymkata.
And Soderbergh doesn’t shy away from drawing parallels to the era at all. The excellent, high-octane, funk-tinged score is certainly evocative of the time and some of her outfits display just enough retro-chic for the time without being terribly blatant and in-your-face about it. Add the fact that it actually holds shots and takes so you can follow the action and it seems like they are getting the audience to almost subconsciously associate with the films of that decade, a smart decision for them to make, as the leanness of the film and the genre trappings help curb certain expectations for the star, while making it a unique enough vehicle that it doesn’t seem at all like yet another entry in the over-cut, blue-filtered, direct-to-video action glut one would expect to see a fighter debut in.
Can she act? No. But she’s good enough that she doesn’t hurt the film, which is often the thing that is worrisome about putting someone with little to no performance experience in the lead role of your major motion picture. Perhaps that’s why there’s a sizable role for Channing Tatum, or as some may know him, the pine two-by-four with a buzz cut; so that there’s someone that will make her look good by comparison.
As for her fighting, the movie uses that to its advantage as well. It doesn’t try to finesse the action with fancy choreography and it doesn’t even seem to try to feel the need to make it seem more brutal than violence already is. At times it feels like the foley artist is taking the day off, because rather than having punches sound like a couple of t-bones being slapped together, they actually sound like… well, punches. The kind of sound that you heard as a kid, when your brother and yourself would finally just lose patience and wail on each other.
The plot is a pretty standard variation on the “wrong man been wronged.” Gina, going by the name Mallory and checking in often with her military daddy (Bill Paxton), is a mercenary. Sorry, “licensed government contractor.” She’s on the verge of quitting her position with the fella she’s been working for (Ewan McGregor) but he’s still giving her jobs. And on one of these jobs, she is the victim of an attempted frame-up and execution. She spends the rest of the movie running from the clueless authorities and pummeling the ones that did the wronging. That’s the basic plot. You can guess as much from the trailers that make it look as run of the mill as possible. Which is exactly what it is, story-wise.
What makes it unique are two things; first, the script, while keeping things tight and adhering to the established conventions, does a good job of establishing the double-dealings into an air-tight story. When the web is revealed in its entirety, there aren’t any glaring plot-holes (at least none that have been nagging me since leaving the theater.) It’s almost a let-down when you find out how limp the plot wrap-up is, but that’s almost the point. The characters she’s dealing with are the type of people who do this every day and the decisions they make with regards to her mean little more to them than their decision whether to have toast or bagels in the morning. Their machinations are just them using circumstance to their advantage.
Second, you have the cast. With this type of story, you usually have one up and comer and an aging star, who is playing the bad guy in order to chew some scenery and pick up a paycheck. In this case, the cast is much better than you’d usually get and they’re bringing their A-game. McGregor, Paxton and Michael Fassbender all put in excellent performances, despite not having a ton of screen time. Plus, you get Antonio Banderas in a role that is much more understated and low-key than one would expect. And yeah, OK… Michael Douglas showed up for a few days and collected a paycheck for playing Michael Douglas.
In the end, your milage on this type of film may vary, but I would recommend this one over any other with its tropes in recent memory. It doesn’t waste a moment of it’s run-time and is much more intelligent fun than you may expect.
(Three 1/2 out of five stars)