“Don’t think of her as a woman—that’s a mistake.”
These are the instructions given by one of the bad guys, Kenneth (Ewan MacGregor playing Mallory’s treacherous ex-lover and boss), to the hired assassin, Paul, (Michael Fassbender), but they might be intended for the audience as well in case we were tempted to think of Mallory (played by actual mixed martial arts star Gina Carano) as feminine or “soft.”
Fat chance of that. In the film’s opening sequence she ends up in hand to hand combat with Aaron (Channing Tatum), a former partner, “in every sense of the word if you get my drift,” and ends up carjacking the teenage passerby Scott (Michael Angarano in a sweetly goofball turn). Mallory is 100 percent pure primal badass. She’s a private operative sent on a “simple” operation by the super-sexy Paul and, for the rest of the film, we see Mallory kicking the crap out of a lot of good-looking guys. Life and death battles take place between people dressed in full formal wear and car chases happen on actual snow banks in the woods. Not snow covered roads in the woods; the actual snowy woods. A beautiful beach at sunset is not the scene for romance but bloody payback. The move has all the trademark slickness and smooth feel that characterizes all of Steven Soderbergh’s work; as well as a certain chilliness.
Soderbergh is, in many respects, going back to 80’s mores with classic action film making. Back then, rather than cast stars for action films, directors sought physical powerhouses who could do the stunts on screen themselves. Hence the career of Arnold Schwarznegger among others. With Haywire, Soderbergh cast in the role Carano, a genuine martial artist. This means that every fight sequence in Haywire, each and every moment is magical in its physical choreography. Carano’s moves are a true wonder to watch, but she’s no actress, her face never changing expression.
Supporting characters played by the likes of McGregor and Antonio Banderas sometimes add a little bit of life, but they don’t dominate the screen. While Mallory does, most of the action doesn’t call for any emotional investment. This is, in fact, the same problem with those 80’s action flicks. It’s not impossible to do a popcorn style action movie and still have a little humanity in the leads and connect with them; look at MI4, Attack the Block, and X-Men First Class (which also starred Michael Fassbender and frankly made much MUCH better use of him). Haywire is like a light snack between meals of a movie; it can satisfy the momentary craving for a little adrenaline and excitement on screen, but it’s not going to stick.