As Steven Soderbergh tells the story, he was up late one night after being fired from directing a major motion picture (it was Moneyball) when he flipped to a mixed martial arts fight on TV. Having never watched MMA, he was impressed by the fighting chops of the contenders - especially those of female fighting sensation Gina Carano. So Soderbergh got to thinking, why is Angelina Jolie the only actress who gets to also be an action star? This put together a series of events that involved meeting Carano, hiring screenwriter Lem Dobbs (The Limey, Dark City), and developing the project that would eventually become Haywire. The result is a very competent international spy thriller and the launch of what could very possibly become a new female driven action franchise.
Call her the female Jason Bourne (without the amnesia), Carano plays Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine/trained killing machine/all around badass. The film begins in the middle of Kane's story. She's already on the run and doesn't know who to trust (spoiler: no one). But it is pretty clear that her ex-lover/ex-employer, played by Ewan McGregor, is behind the deception. Kane evades capture by one of her former associates (played with surprising capability by Channing Tatum) and escapes with a bystander (Michael Angarano; less impressive). This gives Soderbergh the narrative device necessary to lay the pipe of Kane's back story via a series of flashbacks as Kane explains to the poor kid with a hottie carjacker every detail of her past - ostensibly to tell her story to the authorities if she is captured but more likely putting him in all kinds of unnecessary peril.
The flashbacks take us through some pretty thrilling action sequences set in Barcelona and Dublin. There are some great caper elements reminiscent of Ronin and a well choreographed rooftop chase. The exterior action lacks the polish of the Frankenheimer film or the interesting cinematography both Liman and Greengrass employed in the Bourne films. But the script works, the action stays crisp, and the fights are top notch. In one of the film's best scenes, Michael Fassbender and Carano destroy a hotel suite to the tune of the audience bursting out in applause at the fight's completion.
Soderbergh has made a habit of working with non-actors - the most famous being Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience (though Grey had possessed a fair amount of on-camera time prior to that film). Carano's performance is considerably rougher around the edges than Grey's. While The Girlfriend Experience was a reality-esque super low budget film, Haywire is all Hollywood and those rough edges tend to stick out a bit more. It probably doesn't help that vets like Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Bill Paxton round out the cast. Still, it seems unlikely that anyone will be too turned off by her performance and Soderbergh does a decent job of highlighting her better moments. But no one is going to call her the next Kate Winslett (or even the next Kate Hudson).
It will be interesting to see if this launches Carano into an action star career - but it may be even more interesting to see if this launches a new female driven action franchise. One could envision a franchise that gave opportunity to other up and coming female action star hopefuls to showcase their wall-runs and flying kicks. Obviously, this will depend a great part on how well Haywire does at the box office. Currently set for release from Relativity on January 20th, the film finds itself coming out at an interesting time for action. Green Hornet tried the same thing with mixed results earlier this year. But if audiences do indeed bite, they should rather enjoy the taste they're left with.