Steven Soderbergh continues his occasional practice of using actors as found objects in his perfectly enjoyable formula action-thriller Haywire, which could have been titled The Vindictive Ex-Girlfriend Experience. The star is the monotonic but arresting Gina Carano, a mixed-martial-arts champion given to single-minded pummelings of her opponents. She plays Mallory, a badass espionage agent who moves out on her smug employer/boyfriend (Ewan McGregor) but accepts a couple of final jobs for old times’ sake. Never a good idea. Most of the film is a flashback relayed to a discombobulated witness (Michael Angarano) — whom she has more or less kidnapped — to her latest brawl, which enables Soderbergh (working from a screenplay by Lem Dobbs) to hop among time periods and continents, as is his peripatetic wont. When he’s not doing his tricky-syntax thing, he’s sitting back and watching his leading lady fight — the point of this particular cinematic exercise.
As one of the few major directors who works as his own cinematographer (under the name “Peter Andrews”), Soderbergh is unusually sensitive to how close the camera needs to get to his actors. Militating against the hyperkinetic Bourne-picture fashion of sticking one’s lens in the middle of melees, Soderbergh keeps a respectful distance, allowing us to ogle his star from stem to stern. She’s something to see. Carano doesn’t move like an actor but an athlete — someone trained to channel emotion rather than exhibit it, to conserve energy rather than expend it. (There are similarities to a young Chuck Norris, which I don’t mean as an insult.) The fights are staged and shot so that we can almost but not quite calculate her next move along with her. She’s always faster — and meaner — than we expect, ever ready to swivel, kick out a limb, and squeeze a windpipe shut between rock-hard thighs.
Soderbergh tends to get one big idea — a thesis idea — per film and stick with it even when a touch more flexibility would help. Here it’s that non-kinetic camera, which he’s so wedded to that parts of the film seem underenergized, like a cheap seventies or early eighties picture you’d catch at two in the morning on Cinemax’s tenth most popular channel. Does he have to have so much drab integrity? Couldn’t there be just one high-octane, head-rocking, close-up to put a nice brutal button on something? And what of the (presumed) off-screen finish of the most hateful baddie? Is Soderbergh too proud to throw us a little red meat? This isn’t Solaris …
Soderbergh did reportedly fiddle in postproduction with Carano’s voice, which never sounded to me as if it were coming from her head. But I liked her — and I say that not just because I don’t want to get beaten up. She’s overdefended in interesting ways. The A- and high-B-listers (McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas) in the cast are obviously taking small parts to up their hipster quotients, but Fassbender is striking (in both senses) as an Irish agent who might or might not have a hidden agenda. He does some lovin’, he does some fightin’, he does some psychoanalyzin’, he does some more fightin’ … But he has never had a bedroom scene like the one he has with Gina Carano.