Steven Soderbergh’s action-filmmaking chops get a swift, vigorous 92-minute workout in “Haywire.” So, too, does Gina Carano, a coolly charismatic mixed-martial-arts star plucked from the relative obscurity of televised cage matches to play a skilled assassin on the run from powerful men who want her dead. Paring down narrative and character concerns in favor of a breathtaking application of pure thriller technique, Soderbergh’s latest picture is a lean, efficient exercise tossed off with his customary sangfroid and wickedly dry sense of humor. A name-heavy supporting cast should spell reasonably muscular returns and killer ancillary biz.
Slated for a Jan. 20 release, “Haywire” was actually shot and completed before Soderbergh’s disease drama “Contagion,” to which it serves as a sleek, escapist companion piece — another casually star-studded, globe-trotting thriller about the system’s inability to contain a lethal, fast-moving rogue element. In this case it’s Mallory Kane (Carano), a raven-haired beauty expertly trained by the military and routinely tapped by a nameless security contractor to do the government’s dirty work.
First seen entering a diner in wintry upstate New York, Mallory is approached by someone who seems to be an old friend, Aaron (Channing Tatum). Their cryptic exchange suddenly becomes a coffee-splashing, groin-jabbing, head-smashing melee, the first of several brutish spasms of violence that jolt the film every so often out of its pleasurably low-key vibe. Gaining the upper hand, Mallory drives off with shaken bystander Scott (Michael Angarano), who becomes a willing hostage and listener as she explains the chain of events that led her to this point.
Roughly the next 45 minutes are devoted to a series of flashbacks, kicking off with a mysterious assignment in Barcelona where Mallory and Aaron are part of a crack team assigned to rescue a captive Chinese journalist (Anthony Brandon Wong). The job comes off smoothly enough in a near-wordless montage cut together with rippling precision and timed to the jazzy, percussive riffs of David Holmes’ score. It’s a doozy of a setpiece that pushes action-movie mechanics into a realm of giddily heightened abstraction, only to come back to earth with a raw, visceral scene of hand-to-hand combat between Mallory and an enemy assailant — one of two hold-your-breath sequences that drew spontaneous applause from the pic’s AFI Film Festival audience.
Operating behind the scenes are various men in suits including reptilian exec Coblenz (Michael Douglas); suave, gray-bearded client Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas); and Mallory’s weaselly chief contact, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). It’s Kenneth who sends Mallory to Dublin for a quick job that requires her to don gorgeous evening wear and hang on the arm of debonair Irishman Paul (Michael Fassbender). Naturally she’s walking into a trap, albeit one she’s too smart and instinctively suspicious not to recognize as such.
It’s all fairly routine cloak-and-dagger stuff, and the amusingly terse script by Lem Dobbs (who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on 1999’s “The Limey”) wastes little time attempting to individuate its characters or the double-cross scenarios in which they find themselves. The thrill of “Haywire” derives from the fluidity of the filmmaking, from the unique visual inflections and fleet rhythms Soderbergh achieves as d.p. and editor (working under his usual pseudonyms) to the camera’s unblinking, almost deadpan record of Carano’s altogether astounding displays of athletic prowess (expertly choreographed by J.J. Perry).
Conceived with an eye toward expanding the market for female action stars who aren’t Angelina Jolie, the film doesn’t give Carano much opportunity to suggest hidden depths or even exude a strong sense of mystery. But she’s an alert, engaged performer whose lightning-quick reflexes and resourceful command of her own body — squeezing her legs around a man’s neck, she’s like a particularly fatal contortionist — are enough to maintain a chokehold on the viewer’s rooting interest. Much as he did with Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience,” Soderbergh has cast a relative newcomer from beyond the traditional talent pool and tailored an unconventional vehicle to suit her specific off-Hollywood persona. It remains to be seen if the result is a star-making debut, but it’s a vivid and arresting one regardless.
The bigger-name thesps generally serve little purpose other than to provide a lineup of A-list punching bags, although Tatum delivers a flicker of something more as Mallory’s conflicted colleague/lover/nemesis, as does Bill Paxton in the role of her ever-concerned, quietly proud papa.
Shot on the 4K Red One camera and visually of a piece with Soderbergh’s downmarket digital offerings, the film nonetheless possesses a remarkable elegance and elan, shifting from hot yellow overtones early on to cooler blues and grays as it wends its way from Spain through Ireland to New Mexico. Curiously, while the mayhem plays out in a manner worthy of its title, “Haywire” never seems less than fully in control of its own effects.