And it would be great to see a woman do this, who could really do it. That could be our contribution to these kind of movies. That, shit, she can break people in half… she can run like a gazelle.
I’m looking for a different kind of satisfaction.
— Wilson (Terence Stamp), The Limey
Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) only trusts one person, she says more than once. That’s her dad (Bill Paxton). He’s a Marine, like Mal. He gets what matters. The other guys around her — and there are a lot of them in Haywire — are less attuned, either to Mal or to what matters, and so, they pay a price.
This is the essential storyline of Steven Soderbergh’s movie, designed to showcase the special skills of Mixed Martial Arts star Gina “Conviction” Carano. Mal kicks, punches, jumps, and yes, runs like a gazelle. Trained for black ops, now working freelance, she’s “value-added,” according to Coblenz (Michael Douglas), the US official who green-lights the film’s central mission. She’s also a target, a point clear enough at the start, when a fellow agent Aaron (Channing Tatum) meets her at a New Mexico diner and proceeds to try to kick her ass. He fails, and she not only eludes Aaron’s efforts to “bring her in,” but also leaves him busted up and bloodied, following a terrific first fight scene that makes clear precisely what her value is.
That value is then underlined, continually, as she narrates her story for Scott (Michael Angarano), a kid she picks up at the diner. In his car (she drives, he dresses her gunshot wound according to her very specific instructions), they will eventually come under fire by assorted men, state troopers and then private contractors (like Mal and Aaron) posing as federal agents. Like The Limey, also scripted for Soderbergh by Lem Dobbs, this one skips around in time, overlapping Mal’s memories and guesses at what happened, following her investigation and her increasingly ominous vengeance plot.
This structure, at once antic and calculated, is as much fun as the action. “Are you tracking me?” she queries Scott when he looks baffled, upon which he starts listing names and events, like he’s been watching the flashbacks with you and now faces an exam. She explains where the current crisis more or less started, in Barcelona, delineating between major actors, like Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), her ex lover and current contractor, and minor players, like the kidnapped Chinese dissident journalist (Anthony Brandon Wong), she and Aaron are supposed to extract and deliver back to Kenneth.
The job goes sort of wrong in Barcelona, then very wrong in Dublin, owing to a prelude Mal can’t know about, in which Kenneth and Coblenz set terms for their contract (“I’ll remove the hazard bumps if you remove the essential element clause,” each phrase a human being, reduced to dollars). The Dublin assignment is supposed to be easy and unrelated to Barcelona: she’ll be serving as “eye candy” for the principal, Paul (Michael Fassbender). But it’s not long before the intercutting flashbacks indicate that the story is ongoing, as Mal is set up and double-crossed for various nefarious reasons.
At least some of these reasons have to do with the fact that Mal’s a girl. “Don’t think of her as a woman,” one man tells another. “That would be a mistake!” Instead, they tell themselves, she’s an asset or a target, an element in a contract. Mal sees herself differently, as does her dad (who sends her a copy of his latest action-adventure novel, inscribed “Semper fi, again”). She sees herself as an individual, making decisions on the run and seeing options before her adversaries can. This makes the action scenes go, but also, as she doesn’t talk much, makes the action scenes the means by which she “develops.”
All this makes Mal like any other action hero, and the film is well aware that you know that. And this is Haywire‘s greatest kick, as it were. Unlike the slicker versions of gender-inverted action (most recently, Salt or Colombiana), this one doesn’t try to impress you with fast cuts and elaborately mobile cameras. Like olden days’ action movies, with men who did their own work, like Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme (or, the dance pictures those films copied, starring Gene Kelley and Fred Astaire), this one features full-frame action, showcasing the stunts.
Here, the choreographed scenes are the story scenes, the dialogue incidental. Mal is her dad’s daughter, certainly, but their relationship is different from those in Hanna or Kick Ass, where mad dads produced killing machines. Mal’s got her own damage, she’s been honed by the military, as well as government and corporate contracts, premised on distrust (“You need to stop expecting you can achieve a desirable outcome,” cautions one colleague-turned-adversary). Her view informs the film’s look, the sometimes surprising and sometimes awkward choreography and the camerawork that’s both rough and precise.
In skewed angles on clandestine meetings or long tracking shots of Mal in motion, in close-ups of injuries and her camo-painted face, you’re invited to think of the world like she does. They’re composed so you anticipate and appreciate the action per se: a hotel room brawl between Paul and Mal has them using what’s at hand (furniture, vases, Paul’s hidden knife, Mal’s iron-grip thighs); a chase through Dublin has her leaping across rooftops and falling from one, the action pausing as she groans from the impact; and a crucial smackdown begins as she runs up behind her unwitting target, so you watch her coming at him, closer and closer, her breathing louder and louder. She’s coming for her desirable outcome, the one you’ve come to want too.