However deadly in vengeance, Rooney Mara's fetchingly asocial goth-punk-crypto hacker genius is in no way as scary as the former cage fighter unleashed — most spectacularly in the extended hotel-suite-smashing brawl with Michael Fassbender, himself a notably physical actor. "You shouldn't think of her as a woman," Ewan McGregor's character had cautioned Fassbender's. "That would be a mistake." Indeed. "If there's a widening of the range of women's ability to express, articulate, and represent their own aggression, this would mean an expansion in the identity 'woman,'" art historian Maud Lavin wrote in her 2010 study "Push Comes to Shove: New Images of Aggressive Women." And that's something Carano certainly does, even as her singularity reinforces her character's situation as a woman in a man's world.
No doubt "Haywire's" main attraction is watching Carano kick male movie star butt — but that's not all that sets it apart. Carano is the only nonactor in the movie's dramatic scenes and the only professional athlete in its fights. (There were no stand-ins or inserts, per Soderbergh; Fassbender had "a little bit" of protective padding and Ewan McGregor's stunt double was never used.) To watch Carano in "Haywire" is to watch a performer go in and out of her comfort zone. ("The fighting isn't faked, but the acting is," in Toronto Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey's witty formulation.)
On one hand, "Haywire" is a location-rich, bargain-basement Bond flick. On the other, it's a sort of documentary. As opposed to the frantic fragmentation of most action films, notably those of the Bourne cycle, "Haywire" would surely be approved by the great apostle of cinematic realism, André Bazin. The choreographed mayhem is not constructed in the editing but pondered as it happens: The camera position is fixed, the lens is wide, the shots are long. Soderbergh, who serves as his own director of photography, says that his camerawork "keys off what the actors are doing." He calls this "subjective filmmaking" and it imbues an action movie like "Haywire" with a sense of process and existential bravado. "Haywire" is one fight film in which you get to watch people think — the director included.
In the 23 years since "sex, lies, and videotape," Soderbergh has become a realist in more ways than one. "They were right," he said, without rancor, of "Moneyball's" producers. "They got what they wanted." Moneyball grossed $75.5 million in 2011, just behind Soderbergh's post-9/11 disaster film (and skillful ensemble drama) "Contagion" and just ahead of "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never." It's been nominated for four major Oscars, including best picture. "Haywire" took in a tepid $8.4 million on its first weekend and viewers gave it a CinemaScore of D-plus. "Moneyball" may be what Hollywood imagines it does best, but "Haywire" demonstrates what movies do best. Baggage and all, it's the living, breathing real thing.