If you close your eyes during Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, you might think yourself at a screening of one of his "Oceans" films, or even last year's slightly scary but ultimately uninvolving Contagion. Unless your period of darkness happens to coincide with one of many intervals during which grunts are issued, bodies and objects are heard to crash, like aural exclamation marks, all telltale sounds of asses being kicked by the film's heroine, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano). Otherwise, there is a good bit of slinky electronica provided by composer David Holmes, the man responsible for the soundtrack of the three "Oceans" films. Contagion's soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, while a little harder-edged, pulsated with a similarly synthesized score, its background music much closer to the dance floor than the concert hall.
With their modern music sensibilities and and travelog tendencies, Oceans 11, 12 and 13, along with Contagion and Haywire, are a bit like Globe Trekker episodes fraught with danger; in the case of the "Oceans" and Contagion, also burdened perhaps with rather too much budget and too many marquee names. Ms Carano, to this point much more a fighter than actor by trade, does find herself surrounded by some big names in Haywire. Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas are among the men to feel her wrath or at least suffer her suspicion. But focused as it is on her laconic character and quite believable ability to get the better of a fight with most anyone she encounters, Haywire is a leaner, more satisfying piece of work than Mr. Soderbergh has often produced in the last decade.
Haywire does most of it's globe-trotting in flashback. Mallory drives a young man, Scott (Michael Angarano) around the snow-coated landscape of upstate New Year near the diner in which they recently and quite memorably met. Poor Scott had no idea what he was getting himself into with an impetuous bit of chivalry, intervening in a fight between Mallory and a colleague, Aaron (Channing Tatum, with his ample brow and lifeless eyes looking a cyborg version of Brendan Frasier), getting himself and his car commandeered. After Mallory calmly guides Scott through some minor first aid on her injured arm as she drives, he's told of her adventures of the past week or so, the extraction of a kidnapped Chinese dissident in Barcelona, posing as the wife of a British diplomat (Fassbender) in Dublin, while we are treated to extended sequences that illustrate that back story.
Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas as bad guys governmental or of more vague allegiance (this Banderas' Rodrigo, the actor for the most part behind a grayish scraggle of beard), seem to be enjoying a paid vacations in Haywire. Ewan McGregor, however, actually does a bit more for his paycheck. His performance here is perhaps another indication that it's easier, if not more fun, to play the villain. In Roman Polanski's tepid Ghost Writer, he was about as colorless as the muted landscape in which he was confined. But as Kenneth, Mallory's boss (and ex-boyfriend, before she wised up) in the the private firm, McGregor looks about ten years younger than his age (40) in his military man's haircut. And those eyes, usually so benign, glow with a muted, unnatural light. He seems appropriately evil.
It's a bit jarring to see Fassbender and Carano arm in arm in a couple of the Dublin scenes. One of film's more accomplished and magnetic actors of recent years alongside the MMA fighter and erstwhile American Gladiator (Crush, for the record). But as their brief time together takes a turn for the violent, in the form of a hotel room battle to the death, they are, in a sense, inhabiting each other's worlds. Both acquit themselves well enough on unfamiliar ground.
This particular iron lady, Ms. Carano, will make no one forget Meryl Streep, but she brings a little more to her role in Haywire than the ability to inflict pain, on her opponents or an ususpecting audience. During the Dublin flashback, when she realizes that the supposedly easy assignment is a trap, there is a very brief encounter in which she is caught snooping about Russborough House. She and Agent Paul (Fassbender) have come to the Dublin landmark to meet a fairly sinister contact, Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz). She meets Studer in a stairwell and passes off her presence as the result of being a bit drunk in a big and unfamiliar place. Playing drunk, like crying, is the sort of thing that can trip up even an experienced actor. But Carano pulls off the short scene with unexpected grace.
|And that's for The Phantom Menace! Gina Carano dispensing with Ewan Mcgregor in Haywire.|
Haywire is something of a middle ground for Soderbergh in an established pattern of moving from big projects to those of a more modest, if not more personal nature. As he's done with some of the smaller, more experimental pictures, he relies upon someone with little or no acting experience. In The Girlfriend Experience (2009), it was then-active porn star Sasha Grey playing a high-end Manhattan call girl as the city and world go to hell during the fall of 2008. Both The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire present women trying to navigate on their own terms what are essentially men's worlds. Ms. Carano fares better than did the generally impassive Ms. Grey. Haywire also seems to have a much clearer idea of what it's about than its more experimental predecessor.
Mr. Soderbergh has long done his own navigating, between the seemingly eternal demands of art and commerce. One suspects that Haywire was envisioned as serving the latter more than something like The Girlfriend Experience, certainly more than his four hour Che. American audiences haven't really responded in kind - the film appears unlikely to recover its 23-million-dollar budget from the domestic box office. But compared to a money-maker like Oceans 11, in which so much was expended, so many stars gathered to achieve so little (and having the principals look soulfully upon the Bellagio fountain at daybreak while Claire de Lune plays could do nothing to disguise that fact), Haywire does indeed seem a leaner, more satisfying piece of entertainment. Certainly more than one usually encounters when passing through that valley of the shadow of cultural death also known as the multiplex. And that's not such a bad thing.