Its interesting that the unsmiling, kick-ass heroine of HAYWIRE, Mallory, Mal for short, doesnt go directly to the one move uniquely efficient in taking down a male combatant. It speaks, no doubt, to her sense of honor and her belief in a fair fight. A belief that people challenge at their own risk to their everlasting regret. Hence the finely observed and quietly brutal encounters with which Steven Soderberghs archly ironic film is rife.
The story is one of shady government operations, outside contractors brought in to do the dirty work, and both going for the quick and even dirtier buck. Mal (is it a coincidence is it that her nickname is French for evil?) is a crack ex-government contractor on the run as the film begins in a deceptively quiet fashion. A small diner in the middle of a snowy nowhere. A cryptic conversation between Mal (Gina Carano) and Aaron (Channing Tatum) about something that happened in Barcelona and why someone other than Mal should be arrested for it. They are both ticked off, in a Soderberghian understated way, but not for long. Violence erupts, guns fire, and Mal is on the lam with Scott (Michael Angarano), an innocent bystander who serves as both the expository device to bring the audience up to date via flashbacks, and the comic relief as Mal insists on him wearing his seat belt as he splutters on and on about the consequences of his having chosen to not sleep in that morning.
The Barcelona job is recounted with an economy that is all lean muscle, quick cuts, and an impressively long tracking shot of Carano doggedly chasing down a low-life while barely breaking a sweat before definitely putting him in his place. The fall-out of that job, and why something that seemed to have succeeded was, in fact, a mistake of the first order, takes Mal to Ireland, and the charming Michael Fassbender; New Mexico and Mals ex-military father (Bill Paxton mousy behind the glasses); an undisclosed location with government agent Michael Douglas; by phone with Antonio Bandaras; and all over the map with ex-employer and equally ex-boyfriend Ewan McGregor. By starting with Mal on the run, and wasting no time in demonstrating how deadly she can be, the suspense of even the most trivial moments is amped up accordingly, be it her going through a contacts belongings while he is out of the room, or the way she nonchalantly charming Mattieu Kassovitz while working undercover in sequins and high heels. When the time comes for her to take out a pair of riot police, who packing semi-automatic weapons and body armor, that she does so using only her moxie and her razor-sharp smarts is no surprise, only a delight of the first order.
Though at one point a character observes that it would be a mistake to think of Mal as a woman, the whole point of the film is that she is one, and one that is deadlier than the male without resorting to hitting below the belt literally or figuratively. It provides the giddiness of gender bending as in every instance, Mal is the strong, mostly silent one, and the men in her circle become the chicks, enemies panicking in the face of a woman who does not fit the cultural mold, allies falling easily into the role of protected nurturer, offering support and submissively following instructions, while never for a moment even contemplating questioning her decisions. Carano, a world-class champion of the Muay Thai form of martial arts, has the authoritative presence despite a slight frame. Both she and Mal have the necessary lack of fear that has nothing to do with recklessness, and everything to do with discipline and character, a trait that is perfectly in keeping with her sense of responsibility to the ci-mentioned Scott.
Though Mal does not resort to punching below the belt as a rule, in one memorable sequence she strangles a man, one of the handsomest currently working in films, with only her thighs, and stares him down as she does it. Like HAYWIRE itself, its a moment that can be taken many different ways, from high camp to trenchant observation on how the genders interact. Either way, it makes for a film that is absorbing, tense, and unexpectedly piquant.