Nearly half of Steven Soderbergh's films could be characterized as thrillers or crime films. Within the Soderbergh spectrum, the new “Haywire” falls a lot closer to “The Limey” in terms of tone and focus than to the “Ocean's” trilogy or “Out of Sight.”
Interestingly, he seems to have constructed this project as a showcase for Gina Carano, heretofore not an actress but rather a mixed martial arts star, specializing in Muay Thai boxing. It's not the first time he's centered a film on a performer known more for physical prowess than acting; he did something similar with adult movie star Sasha Grey in 2009's “The Girlfriend Experience.” The results are far more satisfying this time around.
Carano plays Mallory Kane, member of a freelance special ops team managed by former boyfriend Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). When we meet Mallory, she's on the run; pursuer Aaron (Channing Tatum) has just caught up with her in a roadside diner. Despite the fact that Aaron is a block of muscle, with the advantage in height and weight, she beats the living daylights out of him in a sudden, brutal fight — the first of many.
In her getaway, she presses into service innocent bystander Scott (Michael Angarano) and his car. As they speed off, he asks why she is being chased. Amazingly, she answers him in detail through a series of flashbacks that make up roughly two-thirds of the film. Why is she telling him all this obviously sensitive information? Wouldn't this be one of those “I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you” situations? And to what extent should we believe her?
The tale she spins has to do with a mission in Barcelona, where a team including her and Aaron liberate/kidnap someone held hostage, followed by a much more complicated assignment in Dublin. The Irish caper uncomfortably teams her with a stranger, Paul (Michael Fassbender), who may have an agenda she's not privy to. Lurking in the story's background are powerful manipulators (Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Mathieu Kassovitz) with their own mysterious goals.
These goals remain mysterious after the lights come up: i.e., I'm still not sure who hired whom to betray another whom ... or maybe didn't. As in the recent “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the story is set in a milieu where most of the characters can never be sure what's going on ... and neither can we. On top of that, we learn most of the information from an interested party, Mallory; this always opens up doubts, although the film never suggests that her presentation is anything but the truth.
What “Haywire” has that “Tinker” etc. doesn't are action set pieces — a lot of them. There are car chases, foot chases and, most of all, hand-to-hand combat, often in restricted spaces. The fights are brutal but thrilling; you can believe that this medium-sized woman has the skill to defeat these larger men. Carano seems to be doing all her own fighting, and she moves with amazing economy and effect. Soderbergh's strategy — to take a fighter and teach her to act rather than an actor who would have to be taught fighting — has paid off handsomely.
And how is Carano's acting? Certainly adequate within the narrow range the film demands; she may be better than that, but it'll take more roles to confirm. It can't be denied, however, that she has powerful presence on the screen and holds her own amid a cast of heavyweights.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).