A female spy-for-hire-type kicks all sorts of butt in Haywire, a movie where this spy also gets to punch dudes in the face, like, totally In. The. Face.
(Yes, I did just make two exclamation points a sentence. The face-punching is that awesome.)
When we first meet Mallory Kane (Gina Carano, who was an MMA fighter in real life, according to imdb.com) she is hanging outside a diner in snowy upstate New York. She goes inside and has a seat. Who is she there for? A guy whose name, we eventually learn, is Scott (Michael Angarano, who has sort of a discount Shia LaBeouf thing going on)? He’s sitting there, in the distance, occasionally in focus, Soderbergh-style. But then Aaron (Channing Tatum) walks in and we know she’s there for him because she’s all darty eyes and stretching her muscles when she sees him, and he sounds like he’s trying out for a Rocky remake so we’re not surprised when their slightly flirty conversation turns into a beating-the-crap-out-of-each-other situation. Mallory eventually breaks his arm (!) and then grabs Scott (who really is just a bystander) and hits the road. She takes his car and, by way of expositioning to us the backstory, tells him what got her to this point.
Back in Barcelona, only a few days earlier, Mallory and Aaron were part of a team sent to extract a kidnapped journalist. Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), their boss, has contracted with Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) and Coblenz (Michael Douglas), who is some sort of government type, to have his team — Mallory, Aaron and two others — get the job done. With only a few hiccups, the task is complete and (after a little Mallory/Aaron post-game celebration) Mallory returns stateside.
After only a few hours at home, however, Kenneth comes by to visit her and get her to do one more job. Or perhaps it’s one last job — having broken up with Kenneth a while earlier, she’s now looking to end her professional relationship with him. But it’s a short job and, he tells her, it involves British intelligence and might help him get business from that group, so she gets back on a plane to head to Ireland, where she’ll pose as half of a couple, the husband being Paul (Michael Fassbender).
Paul meets her at the airport, they head to a hotel together and then later to a fancy party at a big estate where he makes contact with the man who is the focus of his mission. But Mallory is not such a trusting gal as to passively play sidekick. She has synced Paul’s cell phone and keeps an eye on him when he goes off alone at the party. When she finds something disturbing in one of the estate’s outbuildings, she knows to keep her eyes open, and no sooner do they return to the hotel than a new round of face-punching begins. Mallory eventually finds herself on her own, not sure whom to trust and eager to return to the States to figure out how to clear her name and take down the people who are after her.
And more face-punching ensues.
One of the best things about Haywire is how realistic all those arm twists and kicks to the gut and elbows to the neck look. Often times, to make the female butt-kicker look like a genuine tough girl, movies and TV shows have her land every punch and dodge every swing thrown at her. Sure, this can be fun, but it doesn’t make for viscerally exciting fight scenes. Here, Mallory is an excellent fighter but she also takes some of those punches as well as giving them. She shows excellent form but still gets thrown around a bit. There are times when her upper body strength is bested by the equally well-trained upper bodies of the men she’s fighting. But then she’ll use her weight or her legs to block a move and she’ll be back on top of the action. We believe her as an ex-Marine (as we learn she was) who was probably taught even before that (perhaps by her tough-as-nails dad, played by Bill Paxton) to take care of herself. And since a high level of skill at fighting but also spying and evading the law is required for Mallory to live long enough for the movie to have a story, it’s good that the movie spends so much time making her abilities believable.
Carano makes for a smart, engaging heroine and Haywire is a smart, engaging action movie. The movie doesn’t try to be about too much but doesn’t skimp on the talent — leaving just enough room for Douglas, Banderas and Paxton to turn in nice performances, little bits of flavor like a pinch of salt or a bit of pepper. B+
Rated R for some violence. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Lem Dobbs, Haywire is an hour and 33 minutes long and is distributed by Relativity.