The highly trained killer for hire has been such a cinematic staple during the last several years that by now, seeing a svelte woman break limbs and kick people through doors isn’t all that novel. Just about every variation has been explored. Last year, in “Hanna,” we saw a 12-year-old do it.
“Oceans” director Steven Soderbergh’s latest offering, “Haywire,” at least is more realistic than that, and more than most of the competition. Unlike “Salt,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and the various femmes fatales in the “Sherlock Holmes” and “Underworld” series, “Haywire” takes a Jason Bourne-inspired, down-to-earth approach, at least semirespectful of the laws of gravity and suspension of disbelief. It is action-oriented without having its characters dodging explosions or running from helicopter gunships; spy games without computer mind melds; a thriller, not a thrill ride.
At least that seems to be the intention. The results are as mixed as its martial arts. “Haywire,” while vigorous, feels empty of purpose. It’s a good-looking actioner with more style than substance and an ending that leaves little to think about, except the possibility of a sequel.
One thing Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs accomplish for most of the film is to maintain consistent suspense while telling the story in flashback. We first meet the protagonist, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), at a remote roadside diner where her escape from an unfriendly colleague in the international mercenary business sends her on the road with a civilian, Scott (Michael Angarano), to whom she tells, during their drive, the story of the movie. It consists of two recent missions set up by her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). In the first, Mallory is sent to extract a Chinese dissident being held under guard with help from the guy she just pulverized in the diner (Channing Tatum); and in the second she discovers in Ireland with the help of an MI-6 agent (Michael Fassbender) that the extraction mission wasn’t exactly what she thought it was.
The other realistic thing about “Haywire” is that, like most stories told on road trips, this one is sometimes interesting and sometimes snooze-inducing. Soderbergh isn’t just a director for hire, but an individualist who brings a personal look and feel to the film’s action sequences. The movie avoids explosions, guns bigger than those that fit in a normal human hand and most military vehicles and fireballs of any sort, preferring a quieter, more unnerving mix of cloak, dagger and chokehold. The film’s plethora of hand-to-hand combat is well-choreographed and should please fans of mixed-martial arts, with its concentration on holds and arm bars and moments taken to catch a breath. As importantly, these scenes aren’t shot in extreme close-up but from the middle distance, not with rapid editing but with few setups and cuts. We get to see what’s actually going on rather than just a rapid-fire impression upon which so many contemporary action movies rely.
The nonaction stuff is less memorable. The movie’s story is spare and utilitarian, its characters’ motivations uninspired and routine. “It’s always about the money,” Mallory’s boss, Kenneth, reminds us at one point. Maybe so, but “Haywire” suffers for it, and one of the most difficult things to believe is that Mallory’s driving buddy, Scott, doesn’t doze off at any point during their trip. All five friends at a recent screening admitted to doing just that during the movie’s lengthy middle section, featuring an elaborate chain of events created to show how Mallory has been set up. “Haywire’s” weakest element is explaining how, why and who cares that it happens.
That’s a shame because this is the same writer-director team behind the endlessly witty and watchable “The Limey” from 1999, which riveted more with dialogue and character development. “Haywire” has a wider-ranging story, but not a very deep one. Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas round out the better-known portion of the cast as two international players in the “It’s always about the money” game, but their roles don’t add much more than empty star power. The story and characters in this movie are more of a generic glue connecting the well-paced and directed action sequences.
The real bonding agent with audiences that could make “Haywire” a hit despite its deficiencies is the charm of newcomer Carano, a compactly built beauty who combines slinky sexuality with wry menace. Her forceful screen presence may be helped, however, because her character doesn’t have much to say. Neither does the movie. (R) 93 min.