I’ve always tried to be a glass-half-full kind of guy. That’s why when I found out that the ticket office for my flight to Bilbao from London didn’t open for another four hours, I looked at it not as an error in timing but as a chance for me to get around to a movie I’ve had in my personal queue for some time now. That movie is Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, a relatively unnoticed yet nonetheless impressive spy flick which is more than worthy of inclusion in my “Under the Radar” series of reviews. Combining Soderbergh’s signature flare for assembling an impressive ensemble cast with the understated intensity of last year’s arthouse gem Drive, Haywire is a compelling entry into the ranks of modern espionage titles as something of a feminist response to the Bourne series.
Haywire can essentially divided into two parts, the first being told through flashbacks and the second proceeding in real time. That divided is created when the film opens up on what we soon find out is the middle of the story, with a tired yet make-up sporting Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) trudging through snow covered woods to a rendezvous at a local diner. Instead whoever she was intending to meet with, however, Mallory is confronted by a past associate (Channing Tatum) intent on bringing her in for reasons unknown. After a violent confrontation, Mallory commandeers a Good Samaritan’s vehicle to escape and spends the following drive recounting to him the events that led her to their present situation. I won’t give away too much about the plot, but like the Bourne movies, it involves our protagonist being turned on by the very people she works for and subsequently spending the rest of the movie trying to figure out why that is.
As I said, Soderbergh is usually at his best when putting together impressive ensemble casts, and there are more than enough big names in the opening credits to set the stage for the kind of success his films usually enjoy. We have Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Ewan MacGreggor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderes, and Bill Paxton to name a few, yet unlike past hits like Ocean’s 11-13 Soderbergh opted not to fill his lead roll with any of those big names.
Instead, the choice was made to give the role of Mallory Kane to Gina Carano, a relative newcomer and nowhere near the sort of household name that would usually have been cast for the part. It is easy to forget this fact from the first few minutes on, however, as Gina Carano owns the screen with her imposing combination of looks (something of a cross between Julia Stiles and Anna Kendrick), physical prowess (she fights like a UFC champ) and an unwavering feeling of cold resolve that permeates through every scene she is in.
There are plenty of smaller standouts in the cast, albeit none as significant as Carano’s. For Fassbender it is business as usual, his suave smirks underscored by the sort of lingering coldness and repressed menace that made him so great in Prometheus earlier this summer. Channing Tatum is as likeable as he has been in any movie he’s made in the past few years or so, though his character is little more than an unassuming pawn for Kenneth (Ewan MacGreggor), Mallory’s boss and the film’s eventual antagonist. Now I’m usually a fan of Ewan, but his character was written in a way that made him difficult to stand out. As far as villains go, Kenneth is more Weasel than Snake, and I only wish his character could have been portrayed as something a bit more sinister than a run of the mill asshole.
I mentioned before a set of similarities in the film’s action sequenced between it and Drive, and before I give my final verdict I’d like to briefly explain what I meant by that. The sequences of violence both films have a unique style of directing that takes most of its significance from the roll sound plays in those scenes. Unlike most movies that set their fight scenes behind some sort of electrifying background music or at least incidental flourishes and “smack”-like sound effects to accentuate every punch, both Drive and Haywire opt for a much subtler yet, in my opinion, more effective method of framing their “fight scenes”. There are no building crescendos cut off by a final knockout punch, no one-liners at the end of the fight, no directorial tinkerings beyond simply placing the camera in a position for the audience to watch it happen. The lack of slow-motion or acrobatic displays (no offense, Scarlett Johanssen) make it feel like you are watching a real fight to the death, and in that realism we have our usual cinematic bloodlust replaced by an uninvited recognition of the brutality of what we are watching.
The Verdict: 7.5/10 Pretty Damn Great
It really is a shame that this movie should be classified as Under the Radar, but for a variety of reasons the film’s notoriety matches its poor performance at the box office. Maybe it was the unfortunate proximity to similar yet vastly inferior female assassin flick Columbiana with Zoe Saldana, or maybe it was the newcomer status of Gina Carano. For whatever reason, Relativity Media lacked the faith in the film to give it the marketing push it would have needed to reach its full potential, and as a result it never had much of a chance. If you are a fan of the kinds of movies that I mentioned above in comparison (Drive, The Bourne Identity), I would definitely suggest checking Haywire out if you get the chance.