Faith Whittlesey, a former United States Ambassador, once famously noted that “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.” While this is true, it’s hard to believe only two years have passed since Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to earn an Academy Award for Best Director. And not for a touchy/feely movie either, but an action movie – a military action movie. And now, with the likes of Jane Campion and Penny Marshall finally having someone of their own gender written into the Oscar canon, what could be the next benchmark for women in cinema? Could it possibly be Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire?
Cast with inspired aplomb by director Steven Soderbergh – best known in recent years for casting porn star Sasha Grey as enigmatic prostitute Christine Brown in The Girlfriend Experience – mixed martial artist Gina Carano not only portrays the tough, Marine trained mercenary “Mallory” in Haywire, but she could no doubt easily beat the stuffing out of a Sylvester Stallone or a Bruce Willis in real life, and probably give Duane “The Rock” Johnson a run for his money. With a 7-1 record in Women’s Mixed Martial Arts and a 12-1 record in Women’s Muay Thai Boxing, she’s certainly tough enough by women’s standards. And any man who thinks he could last a single round against her need only search out her 2009 fight against Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos to realize that.
Unlike Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, however, one doesn’t get any initial sense in Haywire that Carano was cast for any speciality outside of film acting. In the film’s opening sequence with Channing Tatum, we’re introduced to Mallory as a girl who could easily be mistaken for ingénue; an attractive 20-something, possessing perhaps a bit more grit around the edges than an Amanda Seyfried or Evan Rachel Wood, but certainly no less captivating. But this quickly changes. Following an explosive exchange between the two characters in a roadside café (with Tatum coming out much worse for the wear) Mallory commandeers a car from a young man and hits the road, expositing on her experiences with what’s only referred to in the film as “the company,” a black ops government subdivision dealing in international espionage.
From here the narrative unfolds through a series of flashbacks. After returning from a rescue mission in Spain, Mallory is sent by “the company” through her boss and ex boyfriend, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) on what’s supposed to be a routine “eye candy” assignment in Dublin, posing as the wife of an MI6 agent (Michael Fessbender). During a cocktail party scene, Mallory evokes all the charm of an intelligent, seductive female spy. A few moments later, she’s a merciless brawler fist-fighting for her life in an upscale hotel room (and just like Ginger Rogers, doing it all in high heels). After escaping, Mallory returns home under the protection of a “company” boss (Michael Douglas) in order to discover who set her up and why.
But that’s the problem with Haywire. At the heart of the film’s very existence is that one simple question: Why?
Soderbergh cast Matt Damon in last year’s similarly contrived Contagion as a mild mannered cuckold whose philandering wife launches the spread of a deadly global virus, and before that in The Informant as a hapless Midwestern snitch crushed by the grandeur of his ambitions. Curious then for Soderbergh to follow up with a project cutting whole cloth from the Bourne franchise, with Damon’s character swapped out for one who not only looks significantly better in tight sweaters but who seems genuinely capable of carrying herself in a real fight. Is this homage? Creative lethargy? Soderbergh’s hint to Damon, perhaps, that he should abandon running through European train stations for the greener pastures of humble character acting?
Of the film’s 93 minutes, roughly three of them are comprised of fight sequences that, while choreographed extremely well, don’t make a complete action film. Imagine for instance a 93 minute porno movie with only a few brief sex scenes separated by over an hour’s worth of exposition on why the guy is delivering pizzas. That’s Haywire.
Mallory runs throughout Haywire, fighting off her pursuers using a combination of cutting edge portable technology, feminine wiles and military combat training, the whole time unable to swing a dead cat over her head without hitting some tired trope purloined directly from La Femme Nikita or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Aided by her father (played aptly by Bill Paxton), the only man in her life who isn’t an ineffectual coward or closeted misogynist, she seeks answers. And then, just as the third act seems to be getting underway, the film inexplicably stops. Done. Credits roll. No resolution, no denouement.
Soderbergh’s point — intentional or otherwise — appears to be in his presentation of hyper-realistic violence as something outside the exclusive domain of men; the idea that some women are simply not to be trifled with, on or off camera. Mallory, as mirrored by Carano, isn’t menacing in spite of being a woman, she’s just menacing, period. For Soderbergh to cast someone with virtually no acting experience in the lead role of such a large scale production (Carano previously appeared in the 2009 low-budget indi Blood & Bone) undoubtedly required a huge leap of faith few filmmakers would be willing, or capable, of making.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, Haywire is currently tracking at 83%, above the fourth installment of the Kate Beckinsale led Underworld franchise and George Lucas’ long awaited World War II epic, Red Tails. But despite the question of “why” with Haywire, get ready for a new action hero franchise people.