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“First Form at Mallory Towers”

Soderbergh has never shied away from using unconventional cast members in his movies. Bubble was made entirely with non-professional actors, and when he wanted someone to play a high-class call-girl for The Girlfriend Experience, he went with renowned adult actress, Sasha Grey. Continuing this trend, Haywire revolves around MMA star Carano, which I guess means Soderbergh’s recent leading ladies could, in real life, kick your ass or lick your ass. Ok, I’ll stop. Here, Carano plays Mallory Kane – I keep wanting to type Mallory Knox – an employee of a shady private contracting firm with links to the government, who do the dirty jobs for which the feds want plausible deniability.

We first meet her in a diner, where Aaron (Tatum) meets her. It’s clear there’s some tension, with Aaron having been ordered to bring her in. After a brief, brutal brawl, she knocks him out and escapes, in a car belonging to startled patron Scott (Angarano). There she reveals what led up to that day: an operation in Barcelona, supposedly to rescue a hostage, followed by another in Dublin, which turned out to be an attempt to tidy up the loose ends from Barcelona, The plan is to frame Kane for multiple murders and portray her as a rogue operative. Kane needs to get to her boss, Kenneth (McGregor), and expose the truth before she’s gunned down.

It’s a deliberately-vague plot, with the characters speaking in clipped obscurisms, that leave the audience to piece things together. Don’t worry, it all becomes clear by the end, but it is probably fair to say that you have to pay a bit more attention than is usual for this kind of Hollywood thriller, between the fractured timeline and doubtful loyalties of most characters. It’s economical, at a tight 91 minutes (about 22 minutes shorter than the average Jason Bourne movie to date), and much like Carano, there’s not much fat on its bones: every scene serves a distinct purpose, which is definitely the way I like my movies.

I find it hard to criticize Carano’s acting, because it’s not clear how much acting is involved. Mallory Kane does not just possess physical prowess, but one who is also extremely comfortable with using it, and has a quiet confidence in her abilities. Any similarity to Carano is clearly not coincidental, and there isn’t much more required of her, in terms of emotion or depth. Unlike most action heroines there is no “personal” agenda e.g. Sarah Connor in T2, Ellen Ripley in Aliens, or The Bride in Kill Bill, it’s simply a case that her enemies are out to get her. In that aspect, Knox is not a particularly-“feminine” character. Just as Salt was originally envisaged as a male role, it’s easy to imagine someone like Jason Statham playing this part; hardly any plot changes would be needed.

And then there’s the ass-kicking, of various kinds. It’s good, Carano demonstrating a no-nonsense style that’s highly-effective. Perhaps too effective, in fact, since it seems that hardly any of the fights last longer than about 30 seconds – even the hotel bedroom one, which is certainly one of the roughest male/female brawls seen this side of Terminator 3, feels like it ends, just about when it should be getting going. While it’s nice to be left wanting more, rather than less, it’s still not quite the all-you-can-eat buffet of action I wanted. There also is no real sense of escalation; her final battle isn’t particularly different from the one which opens the film, in the diner; it has another location, and that’s about it, there’s no indication her adversary is any more of a challenge.

While the battles are well crafted – I note that the fight co-ordinator was J.J. Perry, who worked on Sunland Heat back in 2005 – perhaps my favorite scene was not actually one of them, but an extended scene where Mallory has to shake off her pursuers in Dublin. It is adequately extended, contains a number of twists and turns over its length, and showcases Carano’s physical prowess in more than just brutality, as she glides through and over buildings. I also enjoyed a snowy car-chase, which ends in a way which, I’m prepared to bet, you haven’t seen in a movie before. One senses Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs enjoyed playing with the usual expectations of the genre.

It’s certainly shot in typical Soderbergh style. He throws all manner of styles in there, from black-and-white through hand-held to the heavy use of colour filters. Mostly, these flourishes enhance the film, rather than distracting from it, and a billion nods of approval are due for avoiding the rapid-cut style of editing, which is the bane of modern action cinema (except for the rare cases where it’s done properly). Still, there’s no question it’s obvious who made it, to the point that I actually laughed when a shot of Kenneth appeared in sepia – having seen Traffic, I knew, before it was explained, that he had to be in Mexico.

All told, if not quite an all-time classic, this is more than acceptable, upper-tier work. Carano is by no means out of her depth, despite a heavyweight supporting cast including the likes of Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas, and has an understated charisma which works in her favour. I don’t know if her future plans involving returning to the octagon, or sticking with the acting, but if it’s the latter, she’d certainly be a welcome addition to the (fairly short) roster of credible action-heroines from which Hollywood can draw.

Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Star: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Angarano

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