Steven Soderbergh is a master craftsmen with an arthouse sensibility, and he spends much of his time making films that are pure entertainment. Yet he also takes the time to experiment, and he seems more than willing to take a real risk on occasion. Haywire manages to straddle these two aesthetics, resulting in a near-perfect revenge flick with a superb cast and style to spare. Soderbergh’s eye for color and composition plays against an almost stoic tone that offsets the movie’s uber-violence.
The best modern comparison I can think of for Haywire is Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, but this is selling Haywire short. There’s the same sense of coolness (the ‘60s spy-movie vibe of David Holmes’ score certainly helps) and the same kind of flashback-heavy plotting, but there’s a lack of Tarantino’s bombast and constant need to give nods to other genre films. Haywire is a much simpler kind of movie centered around a handful of action pieces, and under Soderbergh’s slick direction, this creates a kind of classy action movie you rarely see.
But don’t mistake classy for boring. Haywire is incredibly brutal at times—although never sadistic—with action bursting out at the viewer from nowhere. Former mixed-martial-arts star Gina Carano stars as betrayed freelance covert operative Mallory Kane—which at first this might seem like an odd casting decision considering the star-power of the other cast members like Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas. But what may be unorthodox for Hollywood is hardly out of character for Soderbergh—he’s the same director who cast adult film star Sasha Grey as the lead in The Girlfriend Experience (2009), after all. We learn early on that Mallory—a gun for hire, doing covert jobs for her ex-boyfriend Kenneth’s (McGregor) security firm—has been double-crossed and is on the run. The bulk of the film is spent bringing the audience up-to-speed though flashbacks as to why.
This is a familiar set-up in the action-film world, but screenplay by Lem Dobbs (who’s worked with Soderbergh in the past with The Limey (1999) and Kafka (1991)) is nevertheless intelligent, and has a welcome, deadpan sense of humor. It helps that the supporting cast contains the kind of players that can make almost anything entertaining. This is prime stuff, from McGregor’s villain to a very small, but excellent turn from Antonio Banderas—not to mention a surprisingly likable role for Channing Tatum. The supporting cast also helps to offset Carano’s lack of dramatic range, but she’s helped even more by a role that doesn’t require very much from her.
Of course, Carano’s acting skills are not the reason she’s in this movie: It’s her athleticism that’s the draw, as the action scenes are clearly tailored to her skills as an MMA fighter. Soderbergh shoots these scenes with little fuss—normally just keeping the camera in place and only making edits when necessary—leaving us with a movie free of “shakycam” and quick cuts. By allowing the performers to perform, and the fight choreographer to simply craft an action sequence, Soderbergh has created a rare modern action film that doesn’t rely on bluster, sleight-of-hand post-production and jumbled editing to be exciting. As straight entertainment, Haywire’s hard to beat. Rated R for some violence.