Quiet restraint of a hit girl
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Jan 20, 2012
Mallory Kane joins Lisbeth Salander and Margaret Thatcher as the latest tough-girl movie heroine by leaving a trail of carnage, sulphur and various male body parts in her wake in "Haywire."
Played by real-life mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano, Mallory is a steely, smoky-voiced creation, a mix of Carano's authentic chops in the ring and pure male pulp fantasy. It's debatable whether Lisbeth, Maggie and Mallory qualify as feminist standard-bearers - each defines herself chiefly by men, either as tormentors or champions - but there's no doubt that watching Carano out-kick, out-punch and out-smart a roster of buff actors delivers a certain compensatory frisson. It seems like just yesterday we were wringing our hands about the sociopolitical implications of Hit Girl waging her profane campaign of purple-haired mayhem. They grow up so fast.
One of the reasons "Haywire" is such a pleasure to watch is that its director, Steven Soderbergh, doesn't overplay the film's hear-me-roar subversions. Temperamentally, he's an understater, and he approaches his first foray into pure action with the same evenhanded cool he lends to every genre he has ever tackled.
"Haywire" possesses a lean, unfussy style, from the blown-out lighting (reminiscent of the back-lit haze that bathed "The Informant!") to fight sequences that Soderbergh stages with a minimum of unnecessary flourish or fanfare. Mallory's encounters unfold, not in a series of cool, whiplash edits set to awesome techno music but simply as images, often with no music or dialogue (one of the finest examples of the pared-down aesthetic can be seen in a refreshingly non-bombastic rescue mission).
Just why is she fighting? That isn't immediately clear, certainly not in a "Haywire's" pulverizing opening sequence that begins with Mallory taking a pot of boiling water to the face and ending with her slamming a guy's head into a diner stool. It emerges that Mallory, a former Marine, has something to do with a Blackwater-esque private contractor and a black ops mission gone wonky; as the tale spins out it will take her from Barcelona and San Diego and Dublin to Upstate New York, New Mexico and Majorca, kicking the backsides of characters who may or may not include those played by Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas.
In casting Carano, Soderbergh continues a recent trend of building movies around non-professionals who have caught his eye; as a screen presence, she's light-years more compelling than porn star Sasha Grey, featured in Soderbergh's misfire "The Girlfriend Experience."
Carano's not a great actress, but she doesn't need to be in a movie that, as conceived by screenwriter Lem Dobbs (who wrote Soderbergh's "The Limey"), doesn't get bogged down in psychology or humanizing back stories.
Instead, "Haywire" simply gives audiences what they came to see: bruising fight sequences set up and executed with economy, skill and one or two genuine jaw-dropping jolts. (And the film has its share of those, one delivered not by a human cast member but by an unexpected four-footed friend.)
With its un-glam visuals and weirdly tacky sound design (Carano's voice was digitally altered and has been mixed to pop out with jarring obviousness), "Haywire" stays true to its low-rent B-movie principles, right down to the fast, strong and quietly competent heroine at its center.
In fact, the only thing "Haywire" doesn't live up to is its title, with its intimations of hysteria and wanton destruction. Mallory may unleash her share of chaos, but it's always under control.
Contains some violence.