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Movie Review

Haywire

Double-crossed, and not going to take it: Gina Carano packs a punch in ‘Haywire’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / January 20, 2012
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Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), the covert operative at the center of Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire,’’ is a heartbreaker. If your heart belongs to one of the movie’s male stars - Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum - the haste with which some of them are dispatched will cause it to break. Carano is an unconventional choice to build a movie around, but Soderbergh has always been as attracted to recessive personalities (like his own) as he has been to dominant ones.

Carano is a professional kick-boxer and mixed-martial artist and once was a warrior on “American Gladiators.’’ Her round, kind face splits the difference between Linda Fiorentino and Britney Spears, but it doesn’t hold the screen. The face might not do much, but her body can do anything. There’s nothing recessive about that. And the pleasure of this small, eccentric movie is the natural way Carano hurts people - by, say, walking partway up a wall and climbing onto a man’s back, by sprinting toward the camera and flying into the human target standing in the foreground.

Soderbergh has put microphones on all the actors so that when they throw each other around what you hear is mostly live sound. The muffled crunch it produces is not unlike the sound of looking for loose change between the cushions of a leather sofa. The tussles lack the crispness, snap, and pow of what we ordinarily hear when two people punch each other in the face or when a head collides with the metal brace around a barstool. That adjustment, as well as making Carano the focal point, amounts to a brilliant change in priorities for a movie we have otherwise seen before.

Indeed, Soderbergh’s colors don’t pop the way they normally do, and David Holmes’s electronic score operates at a jazzy TV-detective-show simmer (there are entire chases and fights when it doesn’t operate at all). Mallory has been double-crossed and spends the movie piecing together how and why. What keeps her interesting as a character is that she’s not a killing machine. We learn that, instead, she’s an ex-Marine. So her agility and sense of privacy make real sense. Lem Dobbs’s script uses flashbacks to explain how Mallory changed from a contractor in Barcelona and Dublin to a fugitive in the American Southwest.

Mallory is classified by her employer (McGregor) as an “essential element’’ to anyone seeking his company’s services. When she teams up with other operatives - Tatum once, then Fassbender - “Haywire’’ also toys with the idea of the romantic caper. Movies like “Charade,’’ “North by Northwest,’’ and “To Catch a Thief’’ are boiled down beyond their essential elements until all that’s left is a woman, a man, and their physicality. This is one of the few movies I can think of in which two characters saying nothing to each other constitutes a form of wit.

We’re used to thinking about how movie violence feels like a substitute for sex. This is one of the closest approximations of that conflation. The body-to-body combat is tight and close. It’s intimate. The rustling and grunting your hear is the same as when two people paw at each other out of lust. Mallory’s goal, it seems, in most fights is to get as close as she can to her opponent and find the bodily breaking point. She pulls one poor fellow toward her, on a bed, with her legs and squeezes until he passes out. Right now, the only woman at the movies more intimidating is the one with the dragon tattoo.

Otherwise, this is about as close as commercial moviemaking gets to Jean-Luc Godard’s prerogative of tampering with an audience’s expectations of both a genre and a director, of denying us conventional pleasure. Here, the thriller is empty of thrills. There are no frills in Carano’s face. The experiment of “Haywire’’ is to approximate how an action movie might proceed along life’s hallways and rooftops and inside its hotel suites. In that sense, Soderbergh hasn’t made an action movie at all. He’s made a documentary.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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HAYWIRE Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh

Written by: Lem Dobbs

Starring: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Michael Douglas

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 106 minutes

Rated: R (some violence, mostly between a woman and some severely overmatched men)

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