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January 21, 2012

A young woman sits, waiting, in a nameless diner in upstate New York. A man comes in, asking her to leave with him. Complaining about his hangover, he orders a coffee. When it comes, he shatters the cup in her face. The other customers and the waitress come to her aid, but she’s quite capable even on her own. She leaves with another young man, commandeering his car before telling him her story. And so we begin Steven Soderbergh’s excellent Haywire.

The woman is Mallory (Gina Carano). She was once a Marine, like her father (Bill Paxton) who has retired to write action novels in New Mexico, but now she works for a private contractor specializing in black ops. The company is run by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), who was Mal’s lover at one time. After the breakup, she was about to leave the company, but she is specially requested for a job by two figures from some hazily-specified government agency (Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas).

Mallory tells us that the man in the diner was Aaron (Channing Tatum), who was in her team on that last Barcelona job, rescuing a kidnapped journalist. She also tells us about another job in Dublin Kenneth begged her into, helping a freelancer — Paul (Michael Fassbender) — convince another player in this game — Studer (Mathieu Kassovitz) — to cut a deal. And she tells us how Kenneth, Barcelona, and Dublin led to her getting shot in the arm in a nameless diner in upstate New York.

The story is tight, though it can be contemplatively paced, and it’s not always clear what’s going on until the end. But this is to be expected from Limey screenwriter Lem Dobbs, not to mention Soderbergh. The action is brutal, and the fight scenes play out with no background music to artificially tweak the atmosphere. But that’s not to say music is neglected; David Holmes’ sexy, jazzy score counterpoints Soderbergh’s always-inventive camerawork.

Mixed martial arts star Carano proves herself a capable actress. Her Mallory is tough and driven without becoming unfeminine; she clearly feels, but she knows how to keep her feelings from overwhelming her ability to do the job at hand. Most importantly, she hurts, which places her in a class of realistic action heroes with the likes Jason Bourne. And Carano’s experience fighting comes through in her athleticism; a traversal of Dublin plays out not with stylized, overfluid parkour, but with a measured pace that feels a lot more like she’s really never been over these roofs before. We see her thinking, assessing paths and making snap decisions. We see her make mistakes and recover.

Paxton, Douglas, and Banderas each have relatively minor parts, but they each step up and deliver solid performances in turn. McGregor is great in a rare less-than-sympathetic role, and Fassbender is, well, Michael Fassbender. Even the cowering audience-surrogate whose car Mallory takes comes off as more fleshed-out than such characters usually are, thanks to Michael Angarano.

All of these pieces click neatly together into an action thriller with a hip, arty, European style comparable with the best of Luc Besson, or last year’s Hanna. On top of that, it delivers a strong female action hero without basically making her into a man-plus-breasts. Now if we can only get her to talk to another woman…

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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