Haywire‘s key line comes during an exchange between Ewan McGregor’s slimy black-ops coordinator and a contract assassin.  It will surprise no one that McGregor wants heroine Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) taken care of (we’d have no movie, otherwise), but his request gives the assassin some pause, who notes that he’s never killed a woman before.  McGregor’s terse response?  “You shouldn’t think of her as being a woman.”

What a loaded bit of dialogue – you can’t hear it and not be reminded of the ways Hollywood de-feminizes those few women bold enough to venture into the action hero realm.  I immediately thought of Angelina Jolie in 2010’s Salt, which was designed as a Tom Cruise vehicle before Cruise dropped out and a quick rewrite made the “He” a “She” (Lou Reed would be so proud).

In that regard, Haywire is director Steven Soderbergh’s commentary on the role of women in action films.  Along with his Kafka and The Limey scribe Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh keeps Mallory Kane from becoming a WINO (Woman In Name Only) by letting her femininity motivate the main action.  Mallory’s betrayal at the hands of McGregor’s character doesn’t spring from routine political skullduggery; she dumped him, and the assassination attempt is McGregor’s brutal, petty way of saying “If I can’t have you, no one can.”  Like the rest of Haywire‘s male characters, McGregor thinks that, because Mallory is a woman, he can control her to suit his many needs (political, emotional, sexual).

That misconception is fatal.  Mallory may be a woman, but she’s also highly focused and extremely lethal; the film’s great running gag is how her femininity makes enemies underestimate her.  This is a woman who can kill a person in .0005 seconds flat, and McGregor sends these dinky little one-or-two-or-three-man-teams after her.  In a world of perfect gender equality, Mallory would be a devastating one-man army, but in Haywire‘s universe, she doesn’t need to be – Mallory moves through the film’s cast like a razor blade through shaving cream.

What we have, as a result, is another Soderbergh “experiment,” a spy thriller without any real suspense, where the outcome is set after we see Mallory destroy her first potential assailant (Channing Tatum, who’s never been looser or less mannered).  The action-movie junkie may scoff (or, judging from Haywire’s anemic nine-million-dollar gross, already has scoffed), but I found this latest Soderbergh postmodern jape as playful and engaging as The Informant or his wonderful Ocean’s Twelve.

There’s something deeply satisfying about watching him futz with a narrative long past its expiration date; Haywire is the piss-take version of the Bourne movies, with deliberately tossed-off expositional blather (an early meeting between McGregor and Michael Douglas & Antonio Banderas’ shadowy government spooks plays like a pitch-perfect spoof of the de rigueur “Here’s the mission” scene), a chronology that twists and spins back on itself past the point of coherence, and globe-trotting exploits that Soderbergh shoots in the same flat, anti-glamorous patina (bonus points for David Holmes’ jazzy score, which eschews the pulse-pounding throb of John Powell’s Bourne notes for ambient grooves that could have come straight from Bitches Brew).

Even Soderbergh’s fight scenes buck conventions, playing out in long, steady camera takes, with the soundtrack muted save for the desperate, unsexy thuds of flesh hitting flesh.  Hence the film’s R-rating: despite a general lack of on-screen blood and bad language, the MPAA gets touchy if violence sounds too painful.

Ultimately, Soderbergh’s greatest coup was casting Gina Carano as Mallory.  I don’t know if she’ll be a Meryl Streep-level talent (this very-lean 90-minute film doesn’t give her or anyone else much time to emote), but Haywire uses her splendidly.  Not only are her fighting skills frighteningly persuasive – the mid-movie hotel brawl between Carano and co-star Michael Fassbender is one for the books – but she semi-legitimizes the movie’s spy reality.  Carano carries an appealing blankness on top of her physical beauty and strength, and you understand instantly how she could maintain her anonymity in covert affairs.

And, God, does Soderbergh respect her.  He and Dobbs have helped ease Carano’s introductory acting jitters by explicitly tailoring Mallory to Carano’s actual persona.  Like the actress, Mallory doesn’t talk much, gets uncomfortable when put in more refined deceptions (I like her awkwardness in the long sequence where she and Fassbender play the part of rich aristocrats), and outclasses everyone in battle.

Somehow, though, her work never feels one-note. Carano gets probing close-ups and chase scenes that run a few beats longer than they would in most actioners simply because Soderbergh finds her so fascinating – the director likes watching his process movement when she thinks she’s being followed, or how she decompresses after a particularly rough throwdown.  It’s unexpected, to see a director fetishize his female star’s physicality without resorting to the “lad mag” subjugations of a Charlie’s Angels or a Tomb Raider, but then again, most of Soderbergh’s approach to Haywire is unexpected.

Making an action movie suit the actress, and not the other way around: what a novel idea.

Lionsgate’s Blu-ray/Digital Copy combo pack offers the film in a terrific digital transfer.  The image can look yellowed and soft at times, but that look is Soderbergh’s intended ; I saw the film projected digitally last January, and the Blu-ray picture is identical to that screening.  Even better is the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  You could be fooled into thinking this a quiet movie – parts coast on Holmes’ score and nothing else – until the fight scenes kick in, and you hear every thud.

Supplements are a wash.  We get one good one – “Gina Carano in Training,” which details how the MMA star prepped for her first official acting gig – and a beyond-fluffy one – “The Men of Haywire,” where the male cast talks about the film (in all the detail that six minutes can allow.  Plus, this feature leaves out Bill Paxton and Douglas, so it isn’t even thorough within its limited constraints).  No featurette on the fight scenes; no commentary from Soderbergh (the biggest sin); it’s a disappointment.

Luckily, the movie is so good.  If you can tune into Soderbergh’s arch, postmodern wavelength, Haywire delivers; I think it’s one of the year’s best films.  The lack of good supplements can’t change that.

Haywire streets on May 1st.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: HAYWIRE Is Steven Soderbergh's Brilliant Postmodern Critique of the Action...