Barely 10 Minutes into Haywire, a young man who had previously been talking quietly with a young woman in a backcountry coffee shop radically switches methods of communication: He throws hot coffee at her, punches her in the face, flings her across the room, kicks her, and pulls a gun. The brutality is sickening, intensified by the shock of seeing a man whale on a woman with an ugliness that, in the grammar of movies, is traditionally reserved for men on men with the expectation of a fair fight. As it happens, the lady — a covert-ops specialist with the pulp-fiction name of Mallory Kane — can take care of herself. Played by mixed-martial-arts champion Gina Carano, Mallory punches, kicks, and stomps back, handily beating the bejayzus out of her adversary and former spy-world colleague (Channing Tatum). Finally, she breaks his arm, wrestles away his gun, and drives off toward her next fight.
This gender-flipped combat is meant to please the moviegoer. But I call foul: The agreement to laugh off the realistic-yet-bloodless beating of a woman as cartoon damage in order to enjoy a filmmaker’s skill at playing with the conventions of genre is bloody depressing. If people of any sex are going to hurt one another, the hurt ought to at least be for high political or moral stakes — just ask James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Lisbeth Salander. Yet there are no stakes at all in Haywire, where government types and shadowy private operators are interchangeable plot pawns, as are their goals. The movie’s only point is to showcase Carano, an attractive, impressive fighter who caught Steven Soderbergh’s eye while she was doing her Muay Thai/boxing/jujitsu thing on TV.
Luckily for the director taking such a gamble, Carano projects an intriguing aura in her dramatic-acting debut — part smoky, dark-haired sexuality, part bruiser, with an uninflected alto voice that cuts through crap. (Her voice was digitally lowered in postproduction.) Plus, she fights real good. Inspired, the filmmaker worked up a characteristically confident riff on spy thrillers, imported martial-arts pics, and cable-TV exhibition fights, all rolled into one loose caper. Where he previously marshaled his abiding interest in processes (how to fight big business in Erin Brockovich, how to stage a heist in the Ocean’s trilogy, how to stop an epidemic in the outstanding 2011 scary movie Contagion), Soderbergh now noodles meaninglessly with the process of a woman running from pursuers on city rooftops and mowing them down with weapons when necessary.
Haywire cavorts around the world — Barcelona, Dublin, upstate New York, New Mexico — with Bourne-again energy and timeline shuffles, making only cursory attempts at plot coherence: Mallory was double-crossed on a mysterious assignment, and with her life in jeopardy, she goes rogue, or something like that. (Screenplay credit goes to Lem Dobbs, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on Kafka and The Limey.) For a dusting of star power, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Fassbender play men who are not to be trusted. The coffee-shop bout between Carano and Tatum is nothing, by the way, compared with the Grand Guignol damage Carano and Fassbender wreak on each other in a Dublin hotel room.
Haywire is zippy and visually sophisticated, with tonal palettes color-coded (as in Traffic) to help make sense of time and place. But it zips to nowhere, fun only for those who agree to enjoy watching a woman inflict pain like a man, for the dumb pleasure of watching her fight. To this referee, that’s movie sensibility gone haywire. B-