MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Haywire’

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Breathless and coolly incomprehensible, “Haywire” is an espionage thriller that dispenses with tradecraft in favor of hyperkinetic foot chases and impeccably choreographed hand-to-hand combat. For director Steven Soderbergh, the film is a weird overlay of two distinct styles. Its globetrotting locales and cuts punctuated with funk music recall the smugness of the “Ocean’s” franchise, while the narrative is animated by the same implacable spirit of vengeance that pervaded “The Limey.”

“Haywire” is a souped-up vehicle for the beautiful and dangerous Gina Carano, who comes by her fighting prowess honestly as a pro mixed martial arts competitor. Here, she plays Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine with a thriving career as a mercenary intelligence operative. The part is perfect for Miss Carano — Mallory is athletic, intense and doesn’t waste words. She’s not the sort of secret agent who “wears the dress,” as she puts it. Rather, she’s the one who beats people into unconsciousness with her bare fists, and the occasional well-placed roundhouse kick.

The script by Lem Dobbs, who teamed up with Mr. Soderbergh on “The Limey” and “Kafka,” starts out in flashback: Mallory is hiding out in upstate New York after a job in Europe has gone bad. The movie opens as she’s tracked down by a colleague in a small-town diner. He’s supposed to bring her in, but she has other plans. The intense fight that ensues sets the tone for the film, with its close-ups of bone-cracking blows hitting their mark. She gets away with the help of a local kid (played by Michael Angarano), who becomes the convenient recipient of a debriefing that catches us up on the story.

After the successful extraction of a Chinese national being held hostage in Barcelona (done, we are led to believe, on behalf of the State Department), Mallory returned to the U.S. only to be sent directly out to Dublin for another assignment - meant to be an easy “babysitting” job done in tandem with Paul (Michael Fassbender), a British operative who is working from his own playbook.

Complicating matters further, Mallory’s boss Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) is also her former lover, and he appears to be taking umbrage at their “just-friends” status and at the high esteem his protege is inspiring in a certain key clientele. This includes State Department mandarin Coblenz (Michael Douglas), whose interest in black ops outstrips his official authority to conduct them.

Somewhere in this morass of half-sketched characters and competing influences, there’s a double-cross, but it’s not important to follow along. “Haywire” is about as dependent on a coherent storyline as mixed martial arts is on Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Even with a slate of star supporting players such as Mr. Douglas, Mr. McGregor, Antonio Banderas (as the scheming Spanish official Rodrigo) and Bill Paxton (Mallory’s father), the plot and its attendant twists and turns are just connective tissue for the fights. These are excellent, shot in long takes with few cuts and special effects, so that the viewer experiences the escalating violence as a close-up bystander. For many moviegoers, these alone will be worth the price of admission.

★★½

TITLE: “Haywire”

CREDITS: Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Lem Dobbs

RATING: R for violence, sexual themes

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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