REVIEW: Gina Carano Takes No Prisoners in Wickedly Entertaining Haywire
The brilliant haute spy character Modesty Blaise – created by British author Peter O’Donnell in 1963 and kept alive, through 2002, in a series of comic books and novels – has been botched on film so many times that those of us who love this urbane, intuitive temptress (with a flair for hand-to-hand combat) have mostly given up hope. Joseph Losey first missed the target with the 1966 Modesty Blaise; Scott Spiegel took another wobbly shot with the 2004 direct-to-video My Name Is Modesty: A Modesty Blaise Adventure. But the spirit of Modesty lives, by another name and in a different sort of story, in Stephen Soderbergh’s stylish, quietly exhilarating Haywire, which features mixed martial-arts star Gina Carano as a hit person with a smoldering, deadpan gaze and nutcracker thighs. She also, as it happens, looks killer in a cocktail dress.
Carano’s character in Haywire is a shadowy freelance special-ops agent and ex-Marine named Mallory. She has the requisite action-novelist father (played by Bill Paxton), who’s half protective mother-hen, half proud papa. And somehow, as we learn in the early moments of this decidedly nonlinear picture, she has reason to be wary of the behind-the-scenes string-pullers who employ her – they’re played by Ewan McGregor (sporting a silly-wonderful Beaker haircut), Antonio Banderas (in an equally silly mountain-man beard) and Michael Douglas (in his normal Gordon Gekko ’do, which is silly enough by itself).
When we first meet Mallory, she’s striding into a sleepy eatery in upstate New York. A gently charismatic maybe-thug, played by Channing Tatum, has followed her there – why? Even after an instance of classic diner violence a la Quentin Tarantino, we still don’t know, but boy, do we want to find out. Later, Mallory will dress as a sultry trophy wife and tryst, in a manner of speaking, in a Dublin hotel room with a suave-as-usual Michael Fassbender. And somewhere in between, she barks orders to Michael Angarano, as a mild-mannered citizen who comes under her spell: “You’re going to fix my arm while I drive, OK, Scott?” He hears and he obeys.
It’s hard to say whether Haywire moves fast or at a pace as languorous as a cat’s stretch. It’s probably somewhere in between, and although the story begins somewhere near the end and encompasses about a half-dozen middles, the sequence of the plot details is almost beside the point. The script is by Lem Dobbs, also the writer behind what is, for my money, Soderbergh’s finest picture (and another nonlinear tall tale), The Limey. Haywire doesn’t have that picture’s chilly elegance, but then, it’s not trying for that effect. This is Soderbergh’s version of a ’60s spy caper – even the music, by David Holmes, channels the purring, ocelot sleekness of old Honey West episodes -- and it’s driven by a kind of bossy energy, embodied largely by Carano. Her mighty haunches ought to get their own screen credit.
Because this is the best kind of action film: One in which we’re actually granted the pleasure of watching bodies move. Haywire is low on gaudy explosions, which have become the ho-hum fallback position of most action movies – as the fireworks have gotten bigger, louder and more elaborate, they’ve come to mean almost nothing. And although there is a car crash of sorts in Haywire, it’s a wincingly amusing one that’s ingenious in its simplicity. When Soderbergh does action, less is more. He’s more interested in watching Carano, and he’s betting we will be, too: Her muscles are obviously mighty, yet they have the softness of feminine curves – Mallory is a mixed-message heroine for sure, which is part of what makes her compelling. (And the guy actors here all deserve credit for so gamely bowing to her mercy.) That Carano does all her own stunts, of course, only adds to the allure. Watching a woman being hurled against a flat-screen TV might not ordinarily be my idea of fun, but it’s clear Carano can take it, and land on her feet – like all of the violence in Haywire, the moment is brutal and laced with grim humor.
In advance, I’m dismayed by the suspicion that a lot of people will come out of Haywire thinking Carano “can’t really act,” though her performance is a useful catalyst for thinking about all the qualities of doing and being that acting – whatever the hell it really is – can encompass. The character of Mallory isn’t as starkly and distinctly drawn as she would be if she’d actually been modeled on Modesty Blaise – Mallory’s personality is elusive and indistinct by design, while O’Donnell had very clear ideas about who Modesty was, where she came from, and what her values were.
But Carano gives us just enough, I think, without giving the whole game away. Her Mallory, a brunette bombshell, is as cool as an oyster on ice. At one point she receives Ewan McGregor’s character in the apartment she’s recently moved into. The flat is in disarray, and she’s just come out of the shower: He hair is wrapped in a towel, and she’s wearing a kimono robe knotted tightly around her waist, which just makes everything above and below look that much rounder.
Mallory is all woman, though she eyes McGregor’s character as if she’s considering eating him for breakfast -- and, in fact, a sly bit of dialogue suggests that she already has. Elsewhere in the picture, McGregor warns another man, “You shouldn’t think of her as being a woman. That would be a mistake.” Yes and no. We’re plenty used to seeing ass-kicking heroines in the movies, from Angelina Jolie in Salt to the feisty schoolgirls of Sucker Punch to Kate Beckinsale’s Underworld latex babe. But Carano’s Mallory is something else again: Paradoxically, she’s both more purposeful and more casual than any of those action heroines – she’s never guilty of trying too hard, even when she’s got a man stuck between a rock and a hard place. That she makes it all look so effortless is part of the fun – as long as you’re not unlucky enough to be the guy with his nut in the nutcracker.