When you're dealing with a filmmaker who has had as lengthy and deliberately varied a career as Steven Soderbergh, singling out one movie to label his absolute best can be a tricky proposition. But a strong case could be made for The Limey, the 1999 thriller he made with screenwriter Lem Dobbs and star Terrence Stamp. Aside from being a terrific film, The Limey is perhaps -- out of all the entries in his filmography -- the most representative of Soderbergh's formal and narrative interests, from the way it fractures its narrative to its dry sense of humor to the morally compromised anti-hero at its center. Made right after the director's big studio breakthrough, Out of Sight, The Limey may be a less jazzy film, but it's far richer in terms of its story. One gives you a great ride, the other lingers in your memory.
Soderbergh and Dobbs's latest collaboration Haywire falls more into the "great ride" category. Designed as a star vehicle for MMA fighter Gina Carano, the movie tells a fairly simple and straightforward story, albeit in the least straightforward way possible. Carano plays covert agent Mallory Kane, who has been framed for killing a hostage she helped rescue on a previous mission. Now on the run, she's pursued by various (male) colleagues (among them, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor) and thoroughly kicks their respective asses as she works her way up to the person that's ultimately responsible for her double-cross. As in The Limey, Dobbs and Soderbergh have structured the narrative to glide back and forth and even sideways in time -- with flashbacks nestled in other flashbacks -- and also studiously avoid extraneous exposition. The dialogue is blunt, to the point and largely kept to a minimum as the film prefers to keep its leading lady in constant motion, which means she doesn't exactly have the time or the energy to engage in lengthy soliloquies.
And honestly, that's for the best. Although Carano is an absolute knockout in both the looks and fighting departments, she doesn't demonstrate a natural screen presence. Her delivery is often flat and affectless and she races through the movie with essentially one facial expression, a stern glare. The best female action stars -- a list that includes Sigourney Weaver, Pam Grier, Michelle Yeoh, Angelina Jolie and Zoe Saldana -- are tough-as-nails, yes, but they're able to display a greater range of emotion (particularly a welcome dash of humor) than Carano does here. The star's limitations as an actress also mean that Dobbs and Soderbergh aren't able to award the character the same rich dramatic backstory that Stamp's elderly criminal, Wilson, had in The Limey. Mallory is more of a two-dimensional superhero that's at her most comfortable when suited up and ready for action. (If Warner Bros. ever does get around to making that Wonder Woman movie, those qualities make Carano a good choice for the role of the Amazon Princess... or, at the very least, her more bad-ass rival, Artemis.)
To their credit, Soderbergh and Dobbs are entirely aware that Haywire isn't going to be another Limey. This is more of a lark for them, a chance to make a muscular action movie without a lot of studio interference. (It's no accident that Soderbergh embarked on the film right after his version of Moneyball fell apart.) And on that level, the film is a lot of fun; the pace clips along nicely and the action sequences are terrifically staged, with Carano and her male co-stars doing all of their own moves and stunts. (Her close-quarters duel with Fassbender in a hotel room is probably the standout set-piece, but a chase across the rooftops of Dublin is also memorable.) The influence of gritty '70s spy thrillers is certainly felt throughout, but, in some ways, the movie more resembles Soderbergh's version of a Russ Meyer girlsploitation flick... although with much less exposed skin. Much like Meyer's roster of Glamazons, Carano is fierce and ferocious around the opposite sex, none of whom are able to tame or defeat her. (In fact, the final fight on a beach features the star in a skintight castsuit that recalls Tula Santana's get-up from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) Sure, one could accuse Soderbergh of indulging in a certain kind of male fantasy -- the gorgeous woman who completely dominates the men she's with in every respect. At the same time, he seems genuinely impressed by Carano as an individual and avoids exploiting her for our titillation as Meyer so often did. Haywire may not herald the arrival of the next great female action hero, but it's a nifty bit of escapism from the January doldrums.
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