I know a guy who says the only sport he watches is MMA. As unlikely as this seems, it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility, as the world of mixed martial arts is an extensive and ever-growing one, with mainstream acceptance being the next little step it has to take. A lot of folks still don’t get the broad strokes of cage fighting, let alone the nuances. Once MMA has settled into a groove like boxing, where the object and methods are widely known and understood, it will become just another in the array of popular sports.
Though I have been known to watch a decent amount of MMA, I do not in any way consider myself an aficionado. I understand what a sprawl is and I can identify various holds and such, but the names and faces of the fighters themselves are a blur to me. A few I know, but most are just interchangeable parts in the machine. Like many, however, there is one woman I definitely know, and that’s Gina Carano.
The daughter of a former Dallas Cowboy, Gina Carano is often called “the face of women’s MMA,” and I guess that’s true. Though she suffered a pretty ignominious defeat in her last bout — and hasn’t fought since, which is a couple years now — she remains popular and MMA fans want to see her fight again. Well, that possibility just got further away due to Carano’s new career: acting. She is the star and main attraction of the movie Haywire, a film crafted by director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs specifically to showcase her natural athletic talents, as well as some practical application of MMA techniques.
In Haywire, Carano plays Mallory Kane, a former Marine who has found a new career as a special operative for a private military contractor. She’s essentially a badass secret agent for hire, working for her former lover, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). The beginning of the movie finds her on the run, however, following some Very Bad Things and we gradually come to understand how she got to this place through judicious use of backward storytelling. If you don’t like flashbacks, you’re probably going to be frustrated with Haywire. I have no problem with the technique, though I will admit it robs some of the tension from sequences that might have been better served with some mystery as to how things will turn out for our heroine.
Anyway, Mallory skips from country to country as easily as Jason Bourne or James Bond, and in those various countries she gets to demonstrate her covert-action skills. Since the trailers go ahead and spoil this, I will tell you that she is betrayed by the people she thought she could trust with her life, and everything spills out from there in increasing circles of violence. I will say, however, that for an R-rated movie, there’s not much that’s objectionable to the point that an R would be appropriate. There’s basically no foul language, very little gunplay and what action there is does not indulge in serious bloodshed. It’s kind of mystery why this didn’t get a PG-13. But I digress.
Because this is a Steven Soderbergh film, the cast is larded with excellent actors of various levels of prestige. In no particular order we have Michael Fassbender, the aforementioned Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas filling out roles of varying size and complexity. Bill Paxton even makes an appearance as Mallory’s father. Considering that the bare bones of Haywire could easily have been employed to prop up a direct-to-DVD actioner starring a bunch of no-names, this is pretty impressive. Gina Carano could not have asked for a classier debut.
It’s worth pointing out that Soderbergh is not an action director, and so the choices he and screenwriter Dobbs make are probably not the choices that filmmakers with an action pedigree would make. For one thing, the events of Haywire are not laid out in such a way that the narrative is dead simple to follow. An audience has to be paying attention, not just to the fighty bits of the picture, but also to the way plot and character are doled out. Everything comes in bits and fragments, and if you’re not adroit at keeping up with such things, Haywire will leave you behind without a second glance.
Is Haywire a good action movie, though? That’s a tougher question to answer. On the one hand I have to say no, because in most cases Soderbergh and Dobbs are deliberately subverting the expectations of the genre with their storytelling technique, but on the other hand Haywire does deliver some good, old-fashioned violence. Maybe there aren’t guns blazing and cars exploding, but there are some bravura set-pieces — a fight scene in a tony hotel suite is a standout — that clearly provide what action audiences are looking for. The real question is whether those folks will be able to sit still and concentrate when the movie is quiet, because that’s where the meat is.
As for Carano herself, I don’t think we should have lofty expectations of her as a performer. She’s not a trained actress and her previous “acting” experience was basically pretending to be an exaggerated character on American Gladiators. Consequently, the fact that she doesn’t act circles around someone like Michael Douglas is not surprising. I can say with some confidence that she is at least as good as some male action stars who have been elevated to Olympian heights by the box office gods. And bear in mind that this is her first movie. Every time she acts, she’s going to get a little bit better.
She definitely handles the physical stuff with ease and it’s nice to see real-world fight choreography in something like this. Punches and kicks have real heft and the techniques Carano and her opponents employ are the kinds of things genuine fighters do when they’re actually beating the hell out of each other. Maybe it’s not flashy, but it has the desired effect: it’s hard to watch Haywire without feeling the action just a little.
Maybe you know nothing about Gina Carano. Maybe MMA has little or no effect on your life. Even if that’s the case, I would still recommend Haywire to you because it is a compact, smart action-thriller with a great cast and some superlative hand-to-hand combats. Gina Carano is just a bonus. Check it out.