Last week, I asked my readers whether they minded when directors started doing one thing well, and coming back with it time after time. At the time someone asked “What about Steven Soderbergh?”.

Soderbergh is a director who came on the scene doing thoughtful indie dramas, and has since mixed genres like sampling flavours at Baskin Robbins. In the last fourteen years he’s tackled heist films, sci-fi, revenge, war, neo-noir, and comedy. I think he just needs to make a western and a musical and he’ll complete the set. He has done them all well, and has now turned his attention to action with HAYWIRE. You’d better believe I was anxious to see what he’d do with yet another genre.

HAYWIRE begins with Mallory Kane (MMA fighter Gina Carano) walking into a roadside diner. She is quickly joined by Aaron (Channing Tatum), who we soon understand has been sent to retrieve her. Before we can find out who she is, why she needs to be retrieved, and who wanted her returned, Mallory and Aaron get into an intense fist fight that leads to Mallory commandeering a diner patron and fleeing with him in his car. As they hit the road, we get the story.

Mallory is a contracted black-ops operative who has run multiple missions for the American government, and we’re led to understand early on that she is very good at what she does. She is overseen by a man named Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). Mallory’s flight all seems to stem back to a job pulled in Barcelona – a job set up by American bureaucrat  named Coblenz (Michael Douglas) and a wealthy Spaniard named Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas). The job is to extract a hostage from Barcelona and hand him over to Rodrigo.

We don’t know why, and it’s clear watching the black-ops team work that they don’t care why.

Not long after Mallory returns home, Kenneth – who she was clearly once involved with – sends her on another mission, this time to Ireland. There she’s to meet up with an MI6 agent named Paul…and it’s there that things start to come apart for Mallory.

The key question is “why”?
What cannot be praised highly enough in HAYWIRE is the way Steven Soderbergh has directed the many scenes of hand-to-hand combat. The theory in Hollywood seems to be that every audience member is now ADD, and that in order to fully convey the intensity of a fight, you have to cut it to ribbons until we can barely understand who’s winning. Soderbergh disagrees and HAYWIRE is all the better for it. What we get instead, is a camera willing to stand one extra step back; thus allowing us to watch the exciting choreography play out for itself. When you take that and combine it with foley artists who don’t make every single blow sound like a bag of flour is being dropped, what you get is some rather realistic and intense fight sequences…led by a woman who can clearly handle herself in a fight.

What’s interesting about casting Gina Carano in a film like this is that it brings with it a degree of risk. The risk isn’t apparent anytime she’s running or fighting – quite the contrary in those moments. No, the risk comes during the many moments she needs to appear calculating or thoughtful and deliver a line. It’s the same risk that comes anytime an athlete or singer is asked to act: The results are often squirm-inducing. Happily, Carano pulls those moments off as well. She’s well equipped for such a part as she has a rather expressive face. Thus, the shot could just be a close-up of her camouflaged face listening to something play out in the next room, and her eyes are able to express quite a lot for a non-actor.

This is key, because despite the way HAYWIRE is being sold, it is not a high-octane, balls-to-the-wall action film. It’s a more intelligent revenge film that relies both on a complicated bit of betrayal, and a lot of cat-and-mouse for its protagonist. Think more BOURNE SUPREMACY and less EXPENDABLES. The curious thing about this formula, is that it might not be for everybody – especially those who it is being marketed to. Admittedly, I’m making an assumption here, but I’d wager that your average MMA fan is going to come away from this movie finding it boring, and wishing there was in fact more action.  That might very well be, but where I’m concerned this is the sort of action film I want: intelligent, grounded, and tough.

Going back to Carano, what was equally interesting to seeing her carry a scene was watching the way she played off some very talented actors (and Channing Tatum. Zing!) The story calls for her to show many faces to many people, and every time she does, she gives us another sliver of who Mallory is. She is sophisticated when working opposite Fassbender’s Paul, she is shrewd when negotiating with Michael Douglas’ Coblenz, and she is caring when she’s around her dad played by Bill Paxton. We are different things to different people, and watching Carano embody those different things is part of what makes the story of HAYWIRE so good.

HAYWIRE is a lot of fun in the way Soderbergh takes the tropes of a revenge/action flick and makes them his own. It carries the look and pace we have come to expect from him over twenty-plus years, and wraps it around some new blood. Likewise, it shows that he can draw a solid performance from an inexperienced talent (if you don’t count THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE). If only more directors took these sorts of risks…and more action was this intelligent.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on HAYWIRE.