If Haywire is opening in your city on Friday, please cancel any other plans you have and buy tickets immediately.
Unless you already know that the way Steven Soderberg directs his actors often drives you up the wall… okay, no, you should still go. The spare script combined with the somewhat flat-affect acting will probably be bothersome for about ten minutes, but then I bet you won’t notice anymore.
The basics: Gina Carano, a retired Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter, plays Mallory Kane. Kane is an ex-Marine who has gone into private security contracting. She does a job in Barcelona rescuing a reporter who’s made some folks uncomfortable and delivers him safely to the U.S. government. Unfortunately, things aren’t as they seem and she ends up on the run from her former employers.
The cast also includes Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, and Bill Paxton. So while I like a lot of those guys, I can’t tell you that the casting is diverse. Anthony Brandon Wong plays Jiang, the reporter, but I don’t remember any lines. One of the guys on Kane’s Barcelona team may have been a person of color and I missed it, and there are a couple of minor bad guys who look like they’re men of color, but again, little or no dialogue. (The film only has three good guys – Kane, her father, and Jiang – so any additional casting diversity was basically going to make the people of color bad guys.) Sadly, too, Gina is the only woman, aside from a waitress at a diner.
Could I have wished for more on both of those fronts? Absolutely. But while the film may not achieve in these areas, I didn’t notice any grievous insults that would have started it at a disadvantage when I was figuring out its rating. The only thing that I could point to would be Jiang’s disposability. He’s a plot device, not a character, and he’s the prominent person of color. Compared to some of the epic stereotyping and fail in other films I’ve reviewed here, though, this seems like a minor sin.
That said, what rocks about this film?
First, Haywire an actual movie, not a video game feed of constant explosions and ass-kicking. It has a spy / espionage feeling to it, enhanced by the film’s old-school secret agent score. After watching so much flash-bang stuff lately, the gritty realism and slower pace was a welcome change. The space between the action scenes gives them more intensity, and also allows for some reality. When Kane misses a jump and hits the edge of a roof with her ribcage, then crashes to the ground on her back, she’s visibly hurt and limps away to hide while she gets her breath back.
We watched some of Carano’s MMA highlights when we got home, and it was obvious the fight choreography was based on how she actually fights. It shows, and I mean that in a good way. These are not glamour shots fight scenes or music video dances. They’re uncomfortable and brutal. And she wins. Her first two fight scenes did make me a little nervous because her opponents seemed to get the jump on her. Her third big fight involved a triangle choke, in which she suffocated a man by crushing his throat between her thighs. The triangle choke is a legit fighting move, but my guy pointed out that she most prominently uses it in the only fight where she’s wearing a dress – and that’s probably not a coincidence. He did say that the scene redeemed itself when Kane then paused for one deep breath and did the next thing she needed to do. I won’t spoil but let’s just say, this gal is hardcore. And whatever my anxieties were at the beginning, they were more than cleared away by the end. In her professional field, she’s thought of as an expert, a “valued asset,” and she proves that valuation repeatedly as the plot unfolds.
(Warning, though: I would guess that the first fight may be especially triggering for some folks. The beginning initially may look like a domestic violence assault.)
I also loved looking at Carano. This is not the casting revolution we dream of to make the overall pool of action movie heroines more diverse, since Carano is a pretty, thin white woman with no obvious disabilities. But she looks so solid compared to the typical action movie casting of women. Carano’s 5’8″ and was reported at about 145 pounds during her fighting career. I don’t want to insult the women who usually get these parts, especially the ones who train hard and become capable of doing a lot of their own stunts. I’m not going to say their bodies are wrong. But even when you know there’s a serious lack of body type diversity in these roles*, it’s a shock when your eyes are presented with something else. And it says a lot about the usual casting when a 5’8″ woman who might be 150 pounds causes that much of a visual shock.
(* There’s a lack of diversity even if you only compare action heroines to the range of body types among professional athletes, which surely no one could argue is an inappropriate comparison group.)
With action films starring women, there’s often a “one hand giveth” problem where you get a lot of great stuff, and then there’s pollution. Not so here. The filmmakers didn’t fall back on ridiculous tropes just because Kane was a woman. When she’s asked to be the eye candy on a supposedly easy “babysitting” job, she shows up in an elegant black cocktail dress that’s appropriate for the social situation. They didn’t manufacture that plot point as an opportunity to put her in the most revealing outfit they can find. I’m pretty sure Kane took a shower at one point, but I don’t remember an extended shower scene, or any gratuitous stripping off of clothing. By a certain point, I could actually relax and enjoy rather than waiting for the filmmakers to betray the character. How novel!
Haywire is my first Heroine Content film of 2012, and it sets a pretty high bar. It’s not flashy, but it’s extremely competent and felt deeply respectful of both Mallory Kane and Gina Carano. Four stars, but I’d also love to hear what y’all think if you get a chance to see it. Which you will, right? Right?
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.