The movie might be called Haywire, but this is a movie that’s totally under control. It’s a big contrast from what’s become the typical action movie template—a chaotic maelstrom of jumpy photography, quick cuts and a confused flurry of fists, kicks, blood and boom. Instead, Haywire opts for a much more restrained feel, like it stepped out of the same era that produced Dirty Harry and The French Connection.
Mallory Kane looks like she belongs on the cover of vogue. But when we first meet her, we find a few cuts and bruises have marred her pretty face. She moves with caution, suspicious of everything. She’s not at this diner for a meal. The place has a modest crowd, and Mallory quickly eyes a mark—a teenage kid eating with a couple friends. Then someone she knows arrives. And she’s not happy to see him. Their short conversation quickly reveals there’s more going on here than a jilted beau hunting down his date. Mallory takes a splash of hot coffee right in the face. The man pummels away at her. The teenager throws himself on top of the guy, but he’s quickly dispatched. He provides just enough of a diversion, however, for Mallory to get her fight on. She quickly gains the upper hand, disables her attacker, and escapes in the teenager’s ride. She takes him along, of course. Someone has to serve as the audience’s portal, so Mallory recounts to him everything that’s brought her here.
Haywire tells the story of elite, sub-contracted espionage. The US Government hires Mallory’s firm to extract a hostage. Mallory doesn’t run the firm, but she is its most prized resource. She’s steady and collected, and she doesn’t have room for small talk or flirting. Ice water runs in her veins, and the job is what keeps her warm. Planning and executing the job, the thrill of the chase, all of it provides heat in a cold world of threat and violence. And once the job is done, we find that Mallory can respond to flirtation, but it’s still on her terms. Whether its the job or sex, she needs a source of heat to survive.
Maybe that’s why she says yes when Kenneth, her boss (and former lover), asks her to do one last job. Like with all spy games, though, we learn that there was more to that initial job than a mere rescue. What Mallory finds only leads to more chaos as layers of secrets and double crosses pile on like a towering Oreo cookie. And Steven Soderbergh builds an exquisite cookie.
Action movies don’t usually aim for any level of quality where the fights and the explosions mean anything more than noise. They’re usually packed with enough sound and fury that you’re glad you’re not tripping out on acid. Every piece of action in Haywire, however, has a purpose. It’s grandiose without the needless flamboyance. The old action clichés do not have a home here. Bullets fired by trained killers hit their marks. When Mallory takes a hit, she feels it.
Gina Carano enters that distinguished group of former prize fighters who’ve managed to find their way to the silver screen. Only this time, Carano can actually act. Granted, the part doesn’t call for her to stretch her range across some wide spectrum of emotion. She plays just about everything hard and stern because that’s her character. Mallory’s all business. What Carano brings is a sense of nuance to the toughness. Body language sells a character better than words, and Soderbergh makes excellent use of her. Like the way he lights a scene in a hallway to capture the tiny movement on Mallory’s throat as she swallows just before she has to fight someone.
Mallory, for the most part, is Soderbergh’s eyepiece. The film departs from her point of view here and there, but always retains her sense of perspective. Soderbergh knows how to draw your eye to suggest what’s going on inside Mallory’s head. He controls where everyone and everything is placed. The placement of his camera has just as much importance as the placement of his props and performers.
The story plays tight and lean as Mallory digs beneath the layers of subterfuge and intrigue to get to the bottom of things. The movie only falls into well-used action movie tropes in the final minutes where the sense of an ongoing mission tries to fill the shoes of actual closure. What we find along the way is a cold world where everyone has to find someway to stay warm. The choices everyone makes has as much to do with that simple need as anything else. We generally think of hell as someplace hot. Haywire might suggest that it was already frozen, and that the light everyone reaches up to grasp could be a flame.
Written by Lem Dobbs
Directed by Steven Soderbergh