Steven Soderbergh's Haywire garnered early attention by putting mixed-martial-artist and fitness über-model Gina Carano in the lead, then digitally tweaking her voice so she sounded more “masculine.” It seems an odd choice to masculinize Carano, particularly in a movie which frames her entirely with men. I'm not sure I'm in alignment with this choice of Soderbergh's, but Carano herself quickly pulled me from that minor distraction. She commands attention from beginning to end.
Which is good, because Haywire's plot is another potential distraction. It's standard-issue: a special agent gets caught in a double-cross, and spends the rest of the movie tracking down and eliminating the ones responsible. This pretty much sums up the entire Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible franchise.
But Soderbergh is a canny manipulator of the tropes we've come to expect, as is his co-conspirator, writer Lem Dobbs (who also gave us The Limey). Flashbacks build a counter-story to the immediate narrative, but where clumsier fingers on the keyboard might grope for the Big Reveal, Dobbs takes the time to lightly tease out subtle and disturbing motivations beneath the reigning stereotypes.
The film's style hearkens back to the early 70s, recalling Don Siegel and William Friedkin. Back alleys, kitchens, the roadside Mom-n-Pop Diner, the dry-cleaner's — our assassin moves fluidly through these nearly-anonymous set-pieces. This is not Special Ops as high-tech glamour profession.
Speaking of fluid movement, if one of the tropes we've come to expect from the M:I movies is the Tom Cruise Sprint, here, too, Soderbergh is happy to oblige with a tweak. Carano's sprinting is natural, unfeigned athleticism. And unlike the M:I movies, here the viewer can see she's holding something back — because she has to. She doesn't want just to catch up to her prey, but to conquer him. To emphasize this point Soderbergh, in contrast to the very-much-in-vogue M:I technique of herky-jerky split-second edits, uses long tracking shots to give the viewer a sense of the natural fatigue that sets in.
Carano's fighting skills are also put to good use. She is the anti-Chan: rather than continually defying gravity, she pointedly leverages it to her advantage. Here she braces her feet against the wall to subdue a larger, male opponent.
As for emotional content, the Double-Crossed Agent plot works best when the protagonist is invested in an innocent. In Haywire the agent's emotional centre is dear old dad, played by Bill Paxton, who brings just a touch of the effeminacy that comes late in life to men of action. Pop is also former military, and he takes a quiet pride in the girl being a chip off the old block. He understands she is in mortal peril, and he reminds her to be careful, but he is finally confident in his daughter's professional judgement and competency.
As in The Limey, Dobbs artfully explores and exploits the bond between father and daughter, as she flirts with, and dispatches, a legion of lesser louts. Things naturally come to a head back at dad's house. During a scene where we might expect protagonist catharsis — a moment of moral clarity that brings the climax to a self-righteous boil — we get clarity of a different sort. The girl is, surprisingly, not the one we most closely identify with. She doles out her form of justice the way she has done throughout the film, with a cool dynamism. After all his level-headed entreaties for caution, dad watches his little girl curb-stomp her opponent, and we catch, in a flash, a father's devastating realization that his daughter has moved to an existential reality worlds away from his own.
He hugs her, attempting to console her, to console himself. But she is beyond his reach.
The rest of the movie is a tidying up of loose ends. We see now that the older men behind the botched contract had each, in their own self-deluded way, attempted to pose as a father figure for our assassin. But she is beyond their reach as well, and they will pay for this oversight with their lives.
In the movie's larger schema, theirs is the lesser toll.