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Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

Haywire

Steven Soderbergh's kickboxing fantasy

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Credit Steven Soderbergh for his willingness to try almost everything in his up-and-down career. With Haywire, the director takes on the female commando subgenre of the contemporary action thriller. His twist is in casting a real-life mixed martial arts star, Gina Carano, as Mallory Kane, the highly trained operative who can kickbox her way out of any tight corner. Soderbergh sometimes coaxes a B-actress performance from Carano when she isn't busy destroying entire rooms in hand-to-foot combat with the men who want her dead. Although theatrical, the fight scenes have an unusually rough-and-tumble reality at their core. Unlike many similar movies, the antiheroine's victories seldom seem inevitable.

One clue that Soderbergh doesn't take female commando thrillers seriously is his framing device for Haywire's first half. After besting an assassin in an upstate New York diner, Kane kidnaps a hapless customer, commandeers his car and, after ordering him to buckle his seatbelt, triggers a set of flashbacks as she tells her tale. We chuckle with Soderbergh as she unloads on a total stranger, explaining her role as an ace operative for a private firm contracted for the really tough missions by a government agency headed by a perpetually sneering man called Coblenz (Michael Douglas). Her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), is a duplicitous weasel with ties to the mysterious baddie Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas). Kane was double-crossed, she insists, and is out for blood.

Her character and the setup for Haywire both look bloodless and one-dimensional in the shadow of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. However, Soderbergh gets his geeky convergence of fratboy fantasy and female empowerment rolling in high style as the story breathlessly crosses time and geography, leaping through countries and continents. The Barcelona sequence is especially impressive, moving with Ocean's Eleven efficiency as Kane carries out her mission to rescue a kidnapped Chinese journalist. Filmed with great visual imagination and panache, the sequence is virtually wordless and the noise of explosions and gunplay deliberately muffled. A musical score sets a jaunty mood. Ironic title cards materialize—“Bad Guy #1” and “Time Window 3.5-4 Minutes”—as Soderbergh mocks the high-tension theatrics of the genre he has invaded. The colors change from frame to frame and the camera speed shifts as the director insists: It's only a movie! And that's Haywire's high point. The foot chase on the rooftops of Dublin is cleverly staged, but by the time Kane returns to America with vengeance in mind, Soderbergh's trick bag is empty. One gets the feeling that he was bored through Haywire's final 45 minute.
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