4 out of 5

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Most action movies can be summed up in a tagline, which is often plastered on the poster (or its digital equivalent): “You hurt X’s family, expect revenge,” or “Even death wouldn’t stop so-and-so…” and etc.  This doesn’t prevent those action movies from trying to toss in several scenes that pretend that the flicks they’re in are about more than distracting us with high kicks and explosions, such as expository dialogue because some scriptwriter actually had a story to tell, or subplotty romances that lead to cliched damseling or fridging sequences (and the male hero setup that implies), or maybe a scene where the lead gets tortured in some way to up the grit factor.  But then it’s back to death-not-stopping business as usual, and then we’re at 90 minutes.  And look – there are a ton of great action movies that don’t do this, as well as a whole league of B-type flicks that do it exceedingly well, and in an entertaining fashion, with or without committing the sins mentioned above.  But there are doubly and triply and quadruply as many that are not great, and don’t do it well.

And then there are spy and espionage flicks.  These aren’t as numerous (at least that’s my impression – it doesn’t seem like there’s a giant DTV / DTS scene for that genre), and tend to require something a bit more twisty-turny, and talky, and plot-sticky, and with many named characters, a 2+ hour runtime, and the tagline will only hint at something great that requires more than a wiki paragraph to fully outline.

Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Haywire’ has the tagline of an action flick – “They left her no choice” – and stars former MMA brawler Gina Carano, which is the kinda stunt casting that normally relegates a movie to B-status.  But then there’s the tone – which is often quiet, and observational – and the plot – scripted by Lem Dobbs of the great The Limey and Dark City and featuring smartly dealt out little tweaks on the agent-out-in-the-cold formula, and the music – from groovier Soderbergh flicks like Out of Sight and the Oceans, but here employed only to juxtapose the espionage moments and then to sit back in silence during the action – all suggesting a different type of movie altogether, leaning in to something more noir-y, and spy-y.

Hilariously, though, the plot (Carano, Mallory Kane, is hired to do a rescue job and is then framed by her employers for an assassination that muddies up the intentions of that rescue) is relegated – via story structure – to the margins and via linearity cutups, to the extent that the movie ends precisely at the point when most flicks would take time to dig in to explanations; by the same token, though, the action is shot with a very dry precision, with Soderbergh employing interesting edits which I would say purposefully undercut shots which might otherwise glorify violence.  But this hardly means that the story doesn’t matter, or that the action is boring, and in both cases it’s quite the opposite, but it gives the viewer flexibility: you can ignore the story if you want and just be entertained by Kane dodging pursuing agents while David Holmes’ slick, jazzy score plays, and the extended sequences where Carano takes down a foe with leglocks, or you can be satisfied by the realistic handling of these scuffles, and nestle in to all the grounded espionage work, and wowed by the way Soderbergh and Dobbs navigate the inclusion of actors like Bill Paxton, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, (takes breath) and Michael Fassbender in fully relevant roles that are necessary components of a rather layered bit of double- and triple-crosses… while also amusingly being wrapped around a MacGuffiny “reason” that’s never really revealed.  It’s clever stuff.

And Carano, though criticized for a stiff performance, is perfect.  Her line reading matches up to a tuff spy who’s reluctantly playing the honey trap, and who otherwise lives her life on the fringes.  More importantly, the awareness of her surroundings she gives her character makes her actions believable; the is not the Denise Richards As A Scientist conundrum.

The fight choreography is clearly set up to lean in to Carano’s MMA skills, and the production of these scenes emphasizes their realness – punches and kicks do not land with movie magic Thwacks, but rather soft thuds – so they can oddly feel a bit underwhelming until you get in to the film’s unique method of straddling its genres.  And perhaps similarly, Soderbergh doesn’t go all out on his cinematography in a way that comfortably seats the movie in a particular tone; it’s sort of middleground for how his movies “look”, which matches that stradding, but makes it take a little bit before we can get a read on whether this is a serious movie, or a fun one, or a cheeky one, or all of the above.  (And it has turns at all of the above.)  But by the time we get to a point in the story where Kane, fleeing from cops in a stolen car, decides to stop and let her pursuers catch up to her – and also stops telling her story to her passenger, related to us in perfect little flashback snapshots – I was all in, loving the way Soderbergh and his crew were messing with all of the action movies and spy movie norms, getting us to that 90 minute mark on a breeze and then calling cut.