(by Dustin Putman
As a big-screen vehicle for Gina Carano's physical prowess, ruthless combat skills, and indomitable presence, "Haywire" stands as an eye-catching film debut. A former MMA fighter whose biggest credit up to this point has been on the short-running 2008 rehaul of game show "American Gladiators," Carano caught the eye of director Steven Soderbergh (2011's "Contagion") and, in something of a dream-like situation, found herself the lead star of a project that, for all intents and purposes, was built around her. Taking a chance on someone who has little to no acting experience is an iffy proposition as it is, but when it works, his or her unaffected purity can pay off far larger than if an established A-lister were in the role. It must be a relief for all involved, then, that the camera loves Carano. If she's this good stone-faced, just imagine what she could do in a role that actually asked her to emote. Article continues below
Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) walks out of the woods and into a rural diner in Upstate New York. Not far behind is Aaron (Channing Tatum), an enigmatic man from her past still hung over from the night before. A few words are exchanged, something involving murder, blackmail, and an elaborate set-up. Within moments, Mallory is in a fight very nearly to the death, narrowly evading a gun shot to the face as she beats Aaron into submission and goes on the run with 19-year-old diner patron Scott (Michael Angarano) and his car. With just the two of them on an open road, Mallory sees fit to untangle her backstory as it relates to the dire situation she's currently found herself in. Cue elaborate, overextended flashbacks as she, a covert operative privately contracted by the government, is sent on a mission that takes her from Barcelona to Dublin and back to the States as she's double-crossed by any number of her colleagues and liaisons, from partners Aaron and Paul (Michael Fassbender), to longtime boss Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), to shady Spanish operative Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), to government official Coblenz (Michael Douglas).
"Haywire" has a lot going for it, not the least being the participation of Gina Carano and a handful of action scenes that prove once and for all a jittery shooting style and an edit per second do not an exciting, cohesive set-piece make. By keeping his camera still and focused and trained directly on the fights, chases and overall brutality at hand, Steven Soderbergh has cranked each of them up several notches with an authenticity, immediacy and danger one simply never gets from, say, a glossy, haphazard Michael Bay production. When people get punched or cut or shot here, it looks and sounds like it genuinely hurts. And, when a vehicular getaway on a snowy path collides, quite literally, with an unsuspecting passing deer, it's as coldly cruel as it is effectively cathartic. That Gina Carano, a cross between a tougher Rachael Leigh Cook and a darker-haired Britney Spears, appears to do most of her own stunts only makes her committed performance all the more special. She's like a more feminine Jackie Chan who doesn't have to be a twig to look healthy, fit, and movie-star beautiful.
Where the film doesn't stand up to scrutiny is in every other department. Told primarily through visuals rather than dialogue, the screenplay by Lem Dobbs (2001's "The Score") is cut down to the bare essentials—a plus—but sacrifices any kind of character-audience connection because of it—a negative. With a too-cool-for-school air that has harmed several past Soderbergh pictures—among them, 1998's "Out of Sight" and 2001's "Ocean's Eleven"—the film lacks any detectable emotional undercurrent. Mallory slinks through the film kicking ass and taking names, but she's given nary a second to really consider what has happened, what she's had to do, and what her actions may mean for her future. No fault of Carano's, since this is how the part has been conceived, but Mallory comes off as far too frigid and aloof for viewers to wholeheartedly care about and root for her. Maybe that's because Dobbs and Soderbergh have forgotten to give her a heart altogether. The rest of the cast show a promise unfulfilled by the slim writing, each of them flirting the line between good and bad guy but none of them developed enough to give complexity to their respective stance. For some, like Ewan McGregor's (2011's "Beginners") Kenneth and Antonio Banderas's (2011's "Puss in Boots") Rodrigo, they have so little to do that they simply look bored.
For a title like "Haywire," said movie is rather subdued in between the spurts of action, sketchily structured so that over half of the film is told in a flashback that makes it feel like an elongated prologue, and the other half unevenly leading toward an anticlimactic third act so poorly lit at times that it's difficult to see what's going on. As for the question of who is double-crossing who, and why, it mostly works itself out—again, quite impressively with minimal dialogue—but never provides a convincing reason to care about the outcome. Gina Carano has got what it takes to move on to fuller, richer parts in better films. For now, she's got a nice start in "Haywire." Without her, there'd be no use for such a familiar, threadbare film to exist at all.