In a quiet snow-covered town in the middle of a random forest, a woman, cut above the brow, wary and dangerous all at once, eyes a diner from the cover of trees. She enters, orders a tea, and settles in to meet a contact. Who that person is and who actually shows up sets off and drives Steven Soderbergh’s early James Bond-inspired “Haywire” starring MMA pioneer and superstar Gina Carano.
The film is your classic Samurai film with a lone warrior-for-hire double-crossed and dead set on getting answers and revenge one badass action scene at a time. From the first fight to the last, Soderbergh and his star ratchet up the violence and bring a style and energy that recalls what it must have been like for American audiences to witness Bruce Lee for the first time.
Carano stars as Mallory Kane, a “Blackwater”-type soldier who was once involved with her boss, Kenneth, played with Erik Prince aplomb by Ewan McGregor. Kenneth acts as her handler and implores her to do a routine gig in Barcelona “that will be like a vacation.” McGregor is not exactly what you’d think of as a villain and it works for him. As a boy scout from hell doing his best to sell his army’s services to the most influential bidder, McGregor perfectly conveys the corporate warrior puppet mentality that has become our military industrial complex.
The film is told through a series of flashbacks. Soderbergh and his writer, Lem Dobbs are no strangers to playing with timelines as they collaborated on 1999’s excellent “The Limey” and they pull it off here to perfection, slowly peeling back the layers of deceit surrounding the Kane conspiracy. Dobbs’ sparse script and Soderbergh’s jazz editing and camera work perfectly capture Carano’s electric ability to look great kicking the crap out of people. Throw in a funky soundtrack and it combines into what Soderbergh describes as what would happen if Hitchcock made a Pam Grier movie.
The fight scenes are spectacular. Brutal, effective violence is on display on so many ways in this picture. I’d be wrong to describe them. Fans of action. Enjoy. Soderbergh’s camera and editing avoid the Michael Bay quick-cuts style of creating action through confusion and instead lingers crisply on the action from only about 4 or 5 different angles. It is an exercise in economic storytelling. It’s also a chance to witness a star being born. There is a brutal grace that Carano possesses that far makes up for her inexperience as an actor. When the two arts mesh in a few films, watch out. The best is yet to come.
“I definitely consider myself an artist,” Carano said at the press junket in Beverly Hills, CA. “And that goes into my fighting and into anything I do.”
Kane’s dilemma is tied to the Barcelona mission. Her team, which includes Channing Tatum, an actor whose energy is that of a guy who just got laid or stoned in some offstage scene, is sent to spring a hostage and all hell breaks loose. The chase sequence and fight that ensues at close quarters had the audience gasping as Carano, like any great artist, manages to take what could be a normal fight scene and instead elevate it to the unexpected. With Carano doing all of her own fighting, the movie goes to a whole other level. The audience audibly gasped and then cheered when the sequence was over.
The film was tailor made for the 29-year old MMA star after Soderbergh saw her fight and asked the question “Why not cast a female lead in what is normally a male dominated genre?”
The result is a film that minimizes Carano’s inexperience as an actor by keeping her simple and physically active as opposed to verbally while allowing her to shine in the fight scenes. Like Bruce Lee, whose physical prowess made us forgive any acting shortcomings he might have, Carano’s charisma and athletic ability easily overcomes the occasional flat delivery.
Soderbergh did his fledging actor a favor by casting brilliantly around her. Michael Douglas supports as a shadowy government contact. Antonio Banderas hides behind a beard as the Barcelona client. Michael Fassbender brings it from all angles as Paul, an MI6 operative who teams up with Kane in Dublin for a routine gig. The fight that ensues is an instant classic and brings mixed martial arts to the screen in a way that even last year’s excellent “Warrior” was not able to achieve.
The fight shows the real world implications of using a variety of styles in a real fight. Fassbender proved to be an excellent coach for Carano. The two shot their scenes first. It was during this process that Carano learned the art of running lines and prepping for scenes as Fassbender took her under his wing.
“That we filmed those scenes first turned out to be a lucky circumstance,” says Soderbergh. “Michael was extremely helpful to Gina, putting in a lot of time working with her away from the set, going through the scenes and lines. It made her feel very comfortable.”
“I’d never done that before,” Carano said of running lines with Fassbender. “Michael took me under his wing. He was really giving with his time. When we got to the fight sequence, it was great because that is my comfort zone. I was able to be physical and shine. It felt like an exchange of expertise.”
Carano got a crash course in how to be an operative training with the film’s technical advisor and real-life security expert, Aaron Cohen. Cohen, who spent three years in Israel’s special operations undercover unit, is the founder of IMS Security, a consulting firm that specializes in providing tactical counter-terrorist training.
“I felt that training with Aaron Cohen would provide Gina with a solid foundation of confidence,” says Soderbergh. “If she felt that the physical demands were doable, that would go a long way toward making her feel comfortable with the performance. I chose Aaron because I wanted someone who was familiar with that world as it is today and not somebody who did it 10 or 20 years ago. He became part of the brain trust for this film, vetting virtually everything we did.”
“Aaron’s goal was to prepare me both mentally and physically for this movie,” Carano explained. “I read his book, but nothing could have prepared me for the boot camp. He taught me everything from the basics of guns to his life experiences. One of the things he impressed on me was that as a special operative, you’re commissioned to take on the jobs that the government doesn’t want to have its fingerprints on. If you’re caught or imprisoned, you’re on your own. The process was extreme and amazing. I come from fighting in a cage, which is very organized. He helped me develop the mindset I needed for Mallory, which is cutthroat to the extreme. It’s life or death.”
Carano trained in Cohen’s boot camp along with McGregor and Tatum for two months and the result is the creation of a world the audience gets lost in as we watch Kane move from Barcelona to Dublin and beyond in search of the truth. Gina Carano has been away from the sport for two and half years. “Haywire” shows it was time well spent but will that be enough to keep Carano out of the cage?
“I found that you get the same adrenaline rush off of acting and the same form of expression, like the same vulnerable expression that you get in fighting,” she said. “I definitely felt more free to express myself, more confident, in the physical scenes. What Soderbergh did with me was he kept me busy the whole time. Regardless of what I am doing I am always busy whether it is picking up a glass of champagne or walking. Anything he could do keep me moving was a key to dealing with a little bit of an amateur actress.”
If there is one thing that may draw Carano back to the world of MMA it’s a fight with the woman who handed her a loss, Cris ‘Cyborg’ Santos. Carano said that Cyborg’s year-long suspension for Stanozolol use doesn’t affect her decision to return one way or the other. How she felt about the positive test was a bit surprising.
“My heart really goes out to her in a way because I know she’s not a bad girl,” said Carano. “We all have these certain things in life that we do. We are all human beings and we are not perfect. Because everyone already assumed it, but to have it backed up was unfortunate for her. She is going to have to live with it, you know? I don’t think twice that she is going to come back stronger person because it is going to be a trying time for her in the next year, having people look at her as you know, I don’t want to say it but a cheater, but maybe somebody around her was telling her the wrong advice. That can happen a lot.
“But at the same time I’m hurt, you know? I didn’t want to hear that, either, because that was the biggest fight of my life. And of course, everyone was always trying to tell me ‘She’s on steroids’ and I was like ‘Don’t take away her physicality. She’s never tested positive for it. So at the same time that was a moment in my life where I never ever wanted to hear that. I could have lived the rest of my life without hearing that.”
Whether she decides to come back to MMA or continue on the path to movie superstardom with rumored roles in Clash of the Titans II and Wonder Woman, for now, Carano explodes onto the screen and ushers in a new era of film fighting. So much the better for us.
Check out Gabriel’s full interview with Carano below: