The fight choreography in Haywire is some of the most creative and dynamic of the last few years. That may not sound like a big deal, but considering that the film consists of leading lady Gina Carano kicking the righteous crap out of all but two of her costars, it bears serious consideration. Steven Soderbergh crafts her onscreen image into a wafer-thin pro-feminist spy thriller that thrives solely because we haven’t seen its like before.
For starters, Carano doesn’t carry herself like a traditional leading lady. The former mixed martial arts star needs no special training and thus doesn’t resemble a dilettante playing at being a spy. Her physicality and toughness feel 100-percent natural, and while her thespian skills are less than perfect, they fit well with the character she plays. She’s a no-nonsense employee for a private securities firm, tasked with various down-and-dirty deeds around the world. The last one proves disastrous, as she and her team secure a whistleblowing journalist from a safe house in Barcelona. All goes well until she suddenly finds herself targeted by her ostensible allies. Alone and without aid, she needs to determine who’s after her and why.
The Byzantine plot entails numerous players, including her wet noodle boss (Ewan MacGregor), new partner (Michael Fassbender) and various shady figures who may or may not be at the heart of it all. Soderbergh wisely eschews the specifics, giving us just enough information to hold it all together before cutting Carano loose against anything and everything in her way. It gets a little repetitive sometimes – the fights basically consist of Carano and some hapless opponent squaring off in closed quarters – but Soderbergh’s visual style keeps it from wearing on our nerves.
More importantly, he shows us how smart this woman is, both in her preparations and in the way she thinks on the fly. Most characters of this sort play off of the femme fatale cliché: luring men in before breaking their necks. Carano eschews the first half of the equation. She balks at wearing a dress, seems uncomfortable at formal parties, and can barely hold a casual conversation. Like Jason Bourne, she’s a killing machine first and always, obsessed with the task before her and methodically determining the best means to get it done. We see her ability to handle unanticipated problems – ways of slowing pursuers or improvising solutions – without bringing the sex symbol component into the equation. She never wears revealing clothes (even her evening gowns are demurre), and practicality governs every aspect of her life. Soderbergh accentuates the loneliness of her existence, but also the fact that it’s her choice and the firm morality that prevents her from sliding into the casual monstrosity of her foes.
Most of Haywire’s feminism stays in the background, however: implied rather than overtly stated. Instead, the film focuses on the mayhem… and what exquisite mayhem it is. The fights carry not only a sense of overriding lethality, but an air of the absurd as well, with combatants who don’t quite know what’s going to happen next and react accordingly. It accentuates the imaginative moves and lightning-quick pacing, leaving us awaiting each new throwdown with breathless anticipation. Soderbergh doesn’t overstay his welcome, and with the superfluous elements kept on the periphery, we couldn’t mistake this for anything but a bit of January fluff. Haywire understands that job and goes about it with surprising competence. This isn’t the way the first few weeks of the year are supposed to go: a welcome surprise to which such a lean bit of espionage constitutes an honorable addition.