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Haywire’ and its star pack a punch

Neil Mathieson | Monday, January 30, 2012

Ever since Luc Besson released “La Femme Nikita” in 1990, a film about a woman assassin trained by the French government, the female-driven action film has become a quandary of a genre. It offers a wonderfully fresh avenue to explore the usually masculine dominated world of action cinema.

However, there are challenges, most prominent is believability. For instance, there are those who will watch “SALT” and scoff as Angelina Jolie swiftly punishes opponents while standing at a menacing 100 pounds and looking as if she just stepped off a plane from Milan. But often the producer’s hands are tied because if a major female actor isn’t cast, revenue and talent will be compromised.

In “Haywire,” director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) appears to revel in these obstacles. He constructs a sleek film while taking a minimalist approach to the action. Haywire trades in high wire acts and grand spectacles for hard-boiled fight sequences and gritty rough-and-tumble realism. The biggest chance was taken on “Haywire’s” star Gina Carano, who at 28 has never starred in a feature film. Where has she been? Gina has been spending time as a mixed martial arts fighter with a record of 7-1 to date.

Gina Carano plays Mallory, a cold-blooded assassin working for a private company that often does contracted jobs for the government. “Haywire’s” narrative follows the usual formula: Mallory is betrayed and framed by her employers and now must exact ruthless revenge on those that double-crossed her. Like many of Soderbergh’s films (“Oceans Eleven,” “Contagion”), stars are abundant. Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor and Channing Tatum are all in the mix. But “Haywire” doesn’t waste time with characters as Soderbergh keeps our blood pumping and Mallory moving, anxious to get to get to her next victim.

If there were ever concerns when it came to Gina Carano’s believability, as a spine-breaking ex-marine, such hesitations are quickly squashed. The opening scene culminates in a fight in a small Northern town diner. Soderbergh allows the brutal blows and snapping bones to organically score the scenes as they play out in an eerie silence. No cinematic tricks are needed, either. The nauseating shaking camera and quick cuts used in order to cover up the actor’s shortcomings or speed up the action are absent. The camera is pulled back allowing us to watch Gina perform her martial craft without interruption. The sight is astounding and sets an unrelenting tone for the rest of the movie.

The fight scenes are the real highlight of “Haywire” and the film seems unapologetic for allowing its other elements to suffer. The dialogue is sparse and for the most part opaque. Little is revealed about the characters and even less consideration is given to the plot’s structure. However, “Haywire” is not uninvolving in the least because, although it may not be particularly lucid, it does a good job of allowing us to glean just enough to understand the motivations behind the action.

Physically, Gina Carano does a tremendous job in “Haywire.” This is not meant as a slight because not much more was asked of her performance emotionally. Much like Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator,” Gina is meant to be a presence more than anything, and her presence is astounding. An intoxicating mixture of beauty and brutality, one cannot help feel Carano’s alluring quality while simultaneously being in awe of her athletic power and grace as she breaks someone’s neck with her knee.

It is rare to have character development during a fight scene, but “Haywire” is a stupendous exception.

Cinematically, the film is often too slick for its own good. Soderbergh gets a little too artistic playing with black and white photography, an array of camera angles and his infamous parallel editing to cool jazz. But, this is his style. “Haywire” is most fundamentally a film about a woman who behaves as we would expect a man to. But I believe that Soderbergh has a more thoughtful meditation on humankind at play.

In one scene, Mallory is referred to as a woman. Ewan McGregor’s character quickly responds, “You shouldn’t think of her as being a woman.” The answer is not that you should consider her a man, either, because this, too, would be a mistake. Yes, Mallory may be void of the expected feminine sensibilities, but she is no less a woman than a man could be a man in her position.

She is a killer. She is trained to take life away, not to participate in it. Her humanity has been drained and replaced with murderous efficiency and vengeful focus.

Everyone considers “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo” to be this season’s exploration into gender expectations. But one shouldn’t discount “Haywire.” It may not be the same psychological rumination, but its physicality allows it to stand triumphantly apart.

Contact Neil Mathieson at nmathies@nd.edu