Soderbergh’s Haywire: Good Workout, Not So Good Movie

MMA star Gina Carano has the kick of an action heroine but not the charisma of a movie star.

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Claudette Barius / Relativity Media / AP

Michael Fassbender, left, and Gina Carano

Gina “Conviction” Carano has spent plenty of time before the camera. This brunette Muay Thai warrior queen was Crush on American Gladiator and, on Showtime, the heartthrob of women’s Mixed Martial Arts—a combination of boxing and wrestling, plus the kicking, hair-pulling and eye-gouging of a brawl in a convent schoolyard. Carano’s one defeat, to jujitsu blond Cris “Cyborg” Santos, provided five minutes of electrifying brutality. Outside the ring, she boasts fluent conversational skills and a lighthouse smile. So there’s no reason she couldn’t make it big in movies. Jeez, Steven Seagal did.

Another Steven, Soderbergh, had just the launch pad for Carano: a studiously generic action project, called Haywire, that would serve as a parade ground for her fighting skills by casting her as Mallory Kane, a U.S. government contract who’s betrayed and sucker-punched by nearly every operative she’s worked with. Pairing Mallory with one male antagonist after another and throwing them both into spaces as cramped as a MMA cage—a rural diner, a hallway, a hotel room—the director gets Carano to simulate her professional strength, stamina and pugilistic ingenuity. It’s James Bond vs. Rosa Klebb in the From Russia With Love train compartment, only you’re rooting for Rosa. For those who yearn to see a woman beat the crap out of Channing Tatum, or best Michael Fassbender in a bedroom, or leave Ewan McGregor whimpering, this is your movie.

(MORE: See TIME’s review of Michael Fassbender in Shame)

In golden-age Hollywood, the main character in a woman’s picture was someone with the skills to bend a man’s emotions to hers. These days, a movie woman proves her femininity by having the biggest cojones around. In the script by Lem Dobbs (the pseudonym, borrowed from Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, taken by writer Anton Kitaj, the son of painter R.B. Kitaj), Mallory gets to prove her testicular fortitude in the first few minutes. Sitting in an upstate New York diner, she is briefly wooed, then savagely punched, by her old partner Aaron (Tatum); in a few minutes he’s breakfast hash.

Sent to Barcelona to free a political prisoner, and to Dublin as the “eye candy” escort to freelance spy Paul (Fassbender), Mallory finds she’s been set up for her own demise. Everywhere, she encounters unreliable dudes: Michael Douglas as a CIA biggie, Antonio Banderas as some bearded malefactor. The only man she can trust is her father (Bill Paxton), the author of Shooter-style novels and, like Mallory, an ex-Marine. Dad should have turned out to be the ultimate villain—since spy-movie plots, no less than space operas, often climax with the revelation and dispatch of the evil father figure—but Haywire doesn’t bother to go there.

(MORE: See Corliss’ take on Soderbergh’s Che)

The screenplay doesn’t bother detonating any surprises at all; narrative ingenuity is sooo 1940s. After the diner donnybrook, Mallory more or less kidnaps a young guy, Scott (Michael Angorano, from Gentlemen Broncos), who serves no plot function but to listen to her flashbacks of the past week; his character is then jettisoned and forgotten. The film also pays little heed to plausibility. Mallory’s first fight is ignored by the other diners, who are ignored by the camera. Later she engages in a long, loud battle in a hotel room whose immediate neighbors don’t instantly summon the staff. Of course, the mayhem isn’t taking place in a diner or a swank suite; it’s occurring in an alternate movie universe, whose capital is Soderburg, and where reality never registers a complaint or knocks on the door as the practitioners of the hard arts ply their noisy job.

Only in Soderburg would the climactic showdown, involving Mallory and her final betrayer, be derailed because the unfortunate dastard has got his foot caught in a cleft of beach rocks, as if the movie had suddenly U-turned into a seaside 127 Hours. We’ll let someone decide whether this scenario construction is lazy or post-modernist hip. Dobbs and Soderbergh may figure that their audience is here for the fights and not for the coherence, so they may as well goof the system. As sleazy businessman Mathieu Kassovitz tells Mallory while inviting her to wander through a labyrinthine garden, “The whole point is to relax and lose yourself.”

(MORE: See TIME’s review of Soderbergh’s Contagion)

In the two-dozen features he’s directed since sex, lies and videotape in 1989, Soderbergh has become full-service auteur, cranking out a movie or two a year and serving pseudonymously as his own cinematographer and editor. He’s also been one of the most committed commuters between glossy Hollywood filmmaking (the Ocean’s franchise) and no-budget indies (Bubble), not to mention virtually every substratum within the broad spectrum of narrative movies. On one side, TrafficErin Brockovich and Contagion; on the other, KafkaSchizopolis, The Girlfriend Experience and his Spanish-language Che bio-pic; and in the middle, the smartly weird comedies Full Frontal and The Informant!

Even for Soderbergh, Haywire is a twist: a formula caper pic with an indie vibe. The movie cites dozens of old- and recent-Hollywood tropes, like the hot-coffee-in-the-face scene from The Big Heat and Matt Damon’s punchup in a Tangiers bathroom from The Bourne Ultimatum, but it also has affectless stretches, with moody glances and not much happening, familiar from so many off-Hollywood films. In that rural upstate New York dinner, an art-house regular may expect to see the religious cultists from Higher Ground and Marcy Martha May Marlene in the next stall. Half the time, David Holmes’s brazenly derivative score is pumping out the wocka-wocka guitar echoes of ’70s B movies and countless porn videos; but there’s no music in the fight scenes, just the percussion of fist on face, and in some of the tenser moments Soderbergh uses silence cleverly, as if he were conducting the first movement of John Cage’s “4:33.”

(MORE: See TIME’s Top 10 Best Movies of 2011)

The fights are fine, though not as punishing as the Carano-Santos match, or as crazy-great as the martial mayhem Tony Jaa endured and dished out in the immortal Thai cruncher Ong-Bak back in ’04. We liked it when Carano cracks Tatum’s head against the steel rim of a bar stool, and the collision makes a crisp ding sound, as if to signal the round over. But what’s missing, oddly, is the ferocious radiance and ease before the camera that any Carano fan can find at a YouTube touch. Sure, this is an action movie, and the new actress needn’t tear a passion to tatters. Nor can she be expected to show the character nuances of other strong ladies in peril—Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Angelina Jolie in Salt—since she has precious little character to play. But Carano seems reluctant to be photographed in repose; her personality is as undercover as Mallory is.

Soderbergh must have realized he’d demanded more of his first-time leading lady than he could get from her. In Carano’s big emoting moment, when she hugs her dad in front of his living-room fireplace, the director does all the acting for her: blacking her face in charcoal camouflage and lighting it with the flicker of the heart flames. Carano is her own best stuntwoman, but in the dialogue scenes she’s all kick and no charisma. The MMA battler lacks the conviction she so forcefully displayed in the ring. She is not Haywire‘s heroine but its hostage.

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