Though Gina Carano is a former MMA fighter and American Gladiator, it would be a stretch to say that she is the real thing if, by real thing, we mean that she’s an actual black-ops super agent capable of bouncing off walls and cracking open both skulls and cans of whoop-ass. But as a gifted and graceful athlete, Carano brings a unique presence to the clichéd “hot chick who kicks butt” genre that has become a modern staple on screens both big and small.
Though she is an accomplished fighter, Carano is not Hollywood royalty. Unburdened by the cultural cachet of, say, an Angeline Jolie or even a Kate Beckinsale, she doesn’t need to undercut her portrayal of tough-as-nails agent Mallory Kane with any wry smiles or self-conscious poses that remind the audience, “I’m a celebrity and I’m ever so lovely, but I’m playing it rough just for you.” There’s no mugging here, just slugging, and director Steven Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs have crafted a stripped-down (though needlessly chronologically twisted) narrative that suits the no-nonsense star to a tee.
Mallory Kane is a private contractor who works, at times, indirectly for the government. Something goes wrong on a job in Barcelona, and now her bosses (Ewan McGregor being the main one) are out to get her. Other details are revealed in a series of flashbacks, but don’t matter much. It’s all fight and flight, and Carano’s athleticism serves her well in said fights, including a startling close-quarter battle with Channing Tatum in a diner that kicks off (lame pun intended) the action in fine fashion. Some of the fights are pretty intense, though not particularly gory. 2011 was the year of head trauma in cinema and if “Haywire” doesn’t reach the skull-crushing ferocity of “Drive,” it still generates plenty of audiences oohs and aahs from things being smashed into heads, and heads being smashed into things, some of which give and some of which don’t (both heads and things, that is).
Carano shines in less kinetic sequences as well. She is hired to serve as “eye candy” for an agent named Paul (the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender) on a mission in Dublin. She takes the somewhat demeaning job reluctantly, asking if Paul can be the one to wear the dress instead. Carano, a regular fixture on “Hot Lists” in men’s magazines, wears the dress quite well, but with her muscular frame, she also looks just a bit out of sorts in a glamorous setting, her table manners not quite flawless, her posture not quite model-perfect. Every second she spends in her slinky black dress, she dreams of slipping into something a little more comfortable, more comfortable for butt-kicking, that is. This sets up one of the most effective shots in the entire movie. Part of the assignment completed, Mallory walks arm-in-arm with Paul down the hotel corridor back to their room. Justifiably suspicious of her partner at this point, she ever so slowly slips off her high heels as Paul jiggles the key card in the lock and opens the door. If Mallory had a Bond-ian proclivity for smart-ass one liners, she might say, “It’s time to check out!” But she's not that kind of prick.
Carano exudes confidence without a smug sense of predestination. There’s never much doubt that Mallory is going to win out, but she’s not just going through the paces either; she’s carefully and intelligently negotiating treacherous terrain. Mallory projects calm amidst chaos, seldom raising her voice (an unconfirmed rumor claims that her voice was altered or dubbed) even during hectic action sequences, and maintains serene control during the film’s clever and immaculately edited car chase which calls for just a couple of strategic turns rather than high-speed peel outs or General Lee jumps. A cameo by Bambi is the show stopper. For the protagonist of a revenge flick, Mallory Kane is remarkably low key and methodical, interested more in problem-solving than in bloodlust, at least until a slightly cartoonish turn at the end.
Soderbergh has certainly stacked the deck in Carano’s favor, casting a host of A-list actors (Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Bill Paxton in addition to the ones already mentioned) to serve as an admiring chorus for the aspiring star’s debut. Whether it proves to be a commercially successfully strategy or not remains to be seen, but Carano's attitude-free performance more than merits top billing. The film is briskly but never frenetically edited – Soderbergh is smart enough to let us watch a genuine athlete performing real stunts that adhere to the laws of gravity – and at 93 minutes it ends before its thin story gets too creaky. The year is young, but “Haywire” is almost certainly going to wind up as one of the best action films of 2012, and Gina Carano is a true breakout star.