Fresh off the heels of Contagion, Steven Soderbergh delivers Haywire, a lean government spy story. What drives the film are its action sequences, driven by mixed martial arts star Gina Carano’s abilityto kick and jum and crush throats with her thighs. The film also reunites Soderbergh with writer Lem Dobbs, responsible for penning one of the director’s best films, The Limey. Like The Limey, Haywire is a bare-bones genre flick that depends on its ability to play with convention in a way that’s more reminiscent of Shoot the Piano Player than Pulp Fiction.
What I most admire about this mode of Soderbergh’s filmmaking is its approach to actors and their performances. The silver screen is a place where people best succeed when they play themselves: when Humphrey Bogart walks across a room, Anna Karina winks at the camera, or Bruce Willis creeps through an elevator shaft. Much the same is true of Carano: she’s not an actress, and even if she were, I doubt she would be a great one. Yet Soderbergh boiled down her performance to a competent and functional show that barely seems like a performance at all. Combined with the understated presence of veterans like Bill Paxton and Michael Douglas, the cast becomes a collection of compelling characters with a refreshing lack of prescribed depth.
Haywire also succeeds as a romp of the sexes, and I took particular delight in watching Carano annihilate a host of slimy male adversaries. Her fight with Michael Fassbender is especially funny; he delivers line familiar to women everywhere, “You’re out of control!” as she pummels him into submission. In our intertextual media universe, it’s all too possible that this is Fassbender’s sex-addict from Shame really getting some serious introspection handed to him. Haywire isn’t offering the feel-good empowerment delivered by the Kill Bill movies or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where sexuality appears as a uniquely feminine form of empowerment that’s appreciated by men and only tested when it goes head to head with other women. Whereas an overwritten character would have easily fallen into similar tired techniques, it is precisely the character’s lack of development and Carano’s subdued performance that make Mallory Kane a badass female unencumbered by an exhausting need for sympathy.
For all that’s made of the action, though, the film is more interested in unraveling mystery than the drama of a final showdown. Dobbs and Soderbergh know that by the time they’ve showed every card up their sleeves and Carano has unwrapped all the layers of her own betrayal, there will be no need for a final confrontation. The film ends just before Carano delivers her last dose of justice. Conventionally, it’s an unsatisfying ending. But not nearly as unsatisfying as it would have been to sit through a boring, drawn out finale.