All our coverage of AFI Fest 2011 can be found here.
It’s become apparent that if you’re a woman with unique talents looking to break into the film business as an actress, there may be no better person to put your faith in than Steven Soderbergh, although you’ll just have to wait for him to find you first. As he explained Sunday night after the AFI Fest premiere of “Haywire,” he first spotted the mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano while tuning into the short-lived Saturday night fights on CBS and wondered to himself, “Why is Angelina [Jolie] the only woman currently allowed to run around with a gun and beat people up?”
Like Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience” before her, Carano has seen the fruits of where one of Soderbergh’s thoughts has led. While Carano’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with a cast including Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Antonio Banderas was likely the biggest question mark entering “Haywire,” she leaves it triumphantly as the film’s biggest question mark in character as the enigmatic Mallory, a Marine-trained U.S. covert operative whose assignment to rescue a Chinese dissident journalist from Barcelona proves to be a cover for a global conspiracy in which she’s deigned to be the fall guy.
Or make that “fall girl.” The film’s script by Lem Dobbs has fun with the fact that the ass-kicking hero is actually a heroine for a change, with one villain musing about how he’s never “done” a girl and Mallory lamenting her mission in Dublin where she’s required to serve as arm candy to a fellow spy Paul (Michael Fassbender), by confessing, “I don’t know how to play that. I don’t know how to wear a dress.” By the grin on Paul’s face, it’s obvious she does, but that’s the least of her talents, dispatching one man after another with a high leg kick that appears as a blur across the screen just as it probably does from the vantage point of the victim.
Although Soderbergh suggested during the post-screening Q & A he was inspired by the early James Bond films of the ‘60s, the film has more in common with the vengeance films of the ‘70s, tipped off by a score from Dave Holmes that isn’t afraid to use the brass when it’s not employed to do more meticulous work. (The entire rescue of the Chinese journalist in Barcelona occurs wordlessly, except for a brief moment between planning the rescue and the actual execution of it to suggest that Mallory has emotions outside of her work during an encounter with her partner on the job played by Channing Tatum.) However, the soundtrack’s most noticeable when it goes silent for each of the fight scenes.
That’s the cue for Mallory to deliver her most bone-crushing hits, and Soderbergh ensures that you hear all of them while depicting them in a way I’m hard-pressed to remember anyone doing similarly. Reversing angles throughout, the scenes are fluid and brutal without resorting to heavy editing to jazz them up. As a practical matter, they resemble the elliptical structure of the story itself, which begins and ends with the same word, and reveal the true character of Mallory – she’s not the one to start fights until it’s clear she’s been wronged. Likewise, perhaps the finest scene in the film is when her father (Bill Paxton) witnesses her delivering a fatal blow, realizing who she’s become.
Paxton and the rest of the film’s decorated list of supporting players all do their part to add personality to “Haywire” that by design the steely Carano is not induced to have and if anything, the film is most impressive in casting the characters and locations that surround her. The result is a globe-trotting adventure that hops from Spain to Dublin to Majorca with all the interesting characters that entails. McGregor and Douglas are not the clueless government agents they appear to be at first, but are engaging even behind a desk while their international contacts of Fassbender’s suave French national escort to Mallory, his French contact (Mathieu Kassovitz) and the mysterious Spaniard Rodrigo (Banderas) all bring intrigue, with Banderas’ unruly, graying beard deserving of a screen credit all its own.
Still, it’s Carano who lives up to her nickname of “Conviction” in her first feature role, one that was clearly shaped to take full advantage of her attitude in the octagon while she’s given a vulnerability through the little moments Soderbergh plants throughout the film that make her worth caring about. “Haywire” may not have the same weight as the director’s last collaboration with Dobbs, “The Limey,” which benefited from all the depth a 60-year-old Terrence Stamp could bring to an aging gangster, another character with revenge on the mind. But in some ways that allows Carano to fly, as she’s prone to do shortly before landing a kick. It’s a different way to carry a film, but there’s no doubt she has the strength.
"Haywire" will be distributed by Relativity on January 20th.
Have you seen "Haywire" and agree or disagree with our review? Let us know in the comments below.