Perhaps you've heard of Gina Carano. A former American Gladiator and current YouTube sensation, the raven-haired 29-year-old is one of the most Googled people on the planet, and has been dubbed "the face of women's mixed martial arts." She's also the comely ass-kicker at the center of Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, a hell-hath-no-fury spy jaunt conceived by its director as Carano's breakout vehicle (think Ong Bak with boobs).
Ever the experimental genre jumper, Soderbergh finally gets his Luc Besson fanboy on, making his first-time leading lady a Nikita thirsty for vengeance in a man's world. He certainly breaks some sort of new ground in the way his fights are presented. Though Carano's freelance operative Mallory Kane tends to walk away the victor, it's hard to recall the last time a female character was so fiercely and frequently beaten up by men, punched and kicked and thrown and smashed without a speck of sugarcoating. To ensure that you get the most visceral, believable bang for your buck, Soderbergh drops out David Holmes's score for every hand-to-hand sequence, accentuating the thwack and crunch of whatever comes in contact with Carano's curvy frame. The movie aims to avoid charges of misogyny and fetishism by putting a feminist spin on the Bond formula, surrounding an ultra-cool female agent with pretty, disposable male heartthrobs (among them: Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, and Ewan McGregor). Regardless of whether the whole thing works or not, the problem with Haywire is its overall lack of importance, as putting a Maxim model through a somewhat novel wringer doesn't quite constitute essential viewing.
Written by Lem Dobbs, the man who penned Soderbergh's much-beloved The Limey, Haywire is gifted an able framing device (Mallory gingerly jacks a car, then spills her tale to its owner in flashback), and it's made to be amenable to the director's penchant for montage. But Soderbergh never makes the most of the opportunity, and as handsome as many of his shots are, he rarely exhibits grace while abiding by laws of show-don't-tell. For example, in an entirely wordless, board-setting segment, wherein Mallory takes part in a Barcelona rescue that's in fact a double cross, blatant Post-It notes accompany the action, explicitly tagging "Bad Guy #1" and the time allotted for the mission. Moreover, Soderbergh needlessly opts for black-and-white cutaways and muffled, score-friendly gunfire, the kind of stylistic pretension that distracts from a movie's urgency, or worse, underlines its lack of it. His interest in voyeurism, which has followed him since Sex, Lies, and Videotape, fares much better, with the camera frequently positioned at surveillance angles and even tucked away in corners during speedy outdoor set pieces. Whether capturing her on rooftops or in kittenish meetings with McGregor's shady middle man, the technique caters to Soderbergh's subject, an Aeon Flux clone with an Ashley Judd voice who looks great both running with a weapon and serving as one.
This isn't the first time Soderbergh has built a film around a non-professional actress to showcase her real-world talents. The sleek 2009 drama The Girlfriend Experience saw porn star Sasha Grey portray a tony New York call girl who similarly dominates a slew of male power figures as a show-running independent contractor. But in looking at Soderbergh's oeuvre, Grey's debut isn't the title that jumps out as Haywire's companion piece, nor is The Limey or any of the Ocean's movies, whose Holmes-composed soundtracks the new one instantly recalls. If anything, Haywire is most closely linked to last year's Contagion, a kindred effort in style, theme, and value-marring detachment. Swap in Cliff Martinez's synth score for Holmes's and you'd have serious montage déjà vu, punctuated by vistas caught with that same jaundice-colored filter. Another paranoid and determinedly rapid globetrotter, Haywire sees more damage-controllers make frantic phone calls before being picked off, with the dogged malady now in the form of a she-wolf scorned. It may sound enticing, but Soderbergh's latest is all aloof propulsion, and like Contagion, it's ultimately inconsequential.