Haywire is an apt title for a film that comes across more as a work in progress than a finished product.
In its promotional spots, the flick seems like another of the tried-and-true "action hero goes on a rampage to right a wrong" films, and there's nothing wrong with that. Many enjoyable movies have come out of that mold. But Haywire bills itself as having "reinvited the espionage thriller" in its production notes. It doesn't just want to be a popcorn flick, but also something more mysterious, and it doesn't succeed in either category.
Mixed martial artist and former American Gladiators star Gina Carano plays Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine who now works for a private mercenary firm about which we learn very little. Her apparent boss is Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), who is also a former lover, because that's the new cliche. Kenneth does not come across as the kind of man anyone would take orders from, but he sends Mallory and Aaron (Channing Tatum) to Barcelona to free a whistleblower. Just days later, working another job, Mallory finds the body of the man they rescued in a shed in Dublin, and realizes that she is being framed for his murder. After that, all bets are off.
Haywire gives us no real reason to care about any of this. We root for Mallory because we know that she is the star of the film and that the other characters are bad guys. Yet we know little about any of them, what makes them tick, or their relationships with each other. What we do get is thrown out haphazardly, such as a scene in which Paul, Mallory's partner on the Dublin job (Michael Fassbender), sits back and psychoanalyzes her, telling us instead of showing us. Why is Kenneth out to have her killed? That's only revealed in passing near the end of the film, which leaves us to spend the rest of it wondering if he just didn't take being dumped very well. (As twitchy as he is, it's a mystery why they were ever a couple in the first place.)
The film boasts a cast full of known names, including McGregor, Tatum, Fassbender, Bill Paxton as Mallory's father, Michael Douglas as the token government employee, and a bearded Antonio Banderas working for the State Department. Most of them come and go; none of them are particularly well-developed.
Sometimes, the characters don't even make sense. We learn early on that Mallory's father knows what she does for a living, yet later on in the film, he appears shocked to see her dispatching a thug trying to kill her. Mallory and Aaron are initially portrayed as little more than colleagues, only to have sex in a scene that is both random and irrelevant, and she is later seen being upset over him. Why is she so hurt over someone she had one fling with? That's something else we'll never know.
I wanted to love Carano in the lead role; I enjoyed her in the short-lived remake of American Gladiators. Here, she puts her considerable athletic skills to good use, but her acting debut is sorely lacking. Each of her lines is delivered in exactly the same tone. Mallory isn't just cold; she lacks personality outside of the usual one-liners given to action heroes. It's hard to say how much of the equation is Carano's fault and how much lies with the script; she's obviously physically capable, and I think she could be a good actress with more experience. One good thing I can say about the film is that unlike many action franchises with a female lead, she's not trussed up into some implausibly skimpy outfit while she's busting heads.
All of the above might be more forgiveable if Haywire had some truly entertaining action, but while the fights and chases aren't bad, they're not outstanding, and some of them border on ridiculous. Mallory and Paul fight it out in a hotel room, wrecking almost every single valuable in the place, yet no one shows up to investigate the ruckus, despite a later mention that guests complained about the noise. There's a moment where they struggle on the bed with him between her legs, apparently so that we can laugh at the sexual subtext. Nothing in any of these scenes that's memorable.
Even stylistically, Haywire is a mixed bag. Director Steven Soderbergh shows a like for long stretches without any dialogue or even score, so you'll spend whole minutes just listening to grunting or running or the guy in front of you eating his popcorn. When there is a score, it's an obtrusive one that does little to support the action in front of you.
It all adds up to a case of confused identity. What does Haywire want to be? Is it trying to be a stylistic suspense thriller? It's so enigmatic about its characters, their goals and motivations that it passes mysterious and ends up frustratingly vague. Does it want to be an action caper? The action is there, but it's hardly jaw-dropping. Whichever way you consider it, it's not all there. Yet the film unsurprisingly leaves itself open for a sequel.
Haywire, a Relativity Media release, opens today. One and a half stars out of four.
(c)2012 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.