While The Hunger Games may have recently taken in over $150 million at the box office, the film is actually the second this year to feature a kick ass female protagonist. Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, despite underperforming, features this year's first breakout tough-as-nails heroine, in the form of Mallory Kane (Gina Carano, a mixed martial arts fighter). An ex-black ops assassin burned by her handlers via a set-up in Barcelona, Carano more than gives Katniss Everdeen a run for her money, even though Carano's acting is, when compared to Jennifer Lawrence, a bit lacking.
At its core, Haywire represents Steven Soderbergh at his leanest and most efficient. Though set in the present day, it carries the feel of a stripped down 1970s political action-thriller (minus most of the politics). For the most part, that's a good thing. Soderbergh and scribe Lem Dobbs' set ups are crisp and quick without feeling rushed, and the action is photographed and staged with a refreshing mix of clarity and lack of chaotic editing or shaky cameras. The aforementioned Barcelona incident, told largely only with images and David Holmes' excellent, varied score, demonstrates Haywire's best; there's a low key feeling to the action that slowly sucks you in and never goes overboard. This is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be, and there's never any hints that Dobbs' script is aiming for political commentary or deep characterization.
Unfortunately, the film is still hindered by what should be its greatest asset: Ms. Carano. Soderbergh has pulled out strong work from non-actors before (Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience), but here he can't quite cover up Carano's inexperience. Carano has the look and presence to be the badass Mallory is supposed to be, and in the fight scenes she's great fun to watch. Yet every time she opens her mouth, the dialogue is delivered in tones that register somewhere between lightweight and robotic. Worse is that the rest of the ensemble are all pros, and don't have enough to work with to really go wrong, which only makes Carano's missteps stick out further. As nice as it is to have a tough, nicely paced action film centering on a female protagonist, there were moments when I wished that one of Carano's co-stars (mostly Michael Fassbender or Ewan McGregor) had been the hero instead.
It's a shame, because if Soderbergh had been able to pull a better performance, the film could have been the stripped-down, stylistically tame cousin of Joe Wright's Hanna. That film featured a few bumps in the screenplay, but the strong work from the cast (namely Saoirse Ronan's fiercely committed turn), along with the direction and excellent technicals elevated it far above its pedestrian origins on the page. Haywire doesn't have that, which makes its stark simplicity less satisfying than it ought to be. I have to give major props to Soderbergh and the technical team for creating such a fun, taut film, but ultimately Carano's stiff performance is too big a factor in the film's success, and she's really the only thing holding it back.