“I don’t wear The Dress.”
I hadn’t heard anything about the new Steven Soderbergh film, Haywire, until about a month before its release. The trailer played at theaters over the holidays and began to show up on television but it didn’t tell me much other than “this is a female led action film.” But it was intriguing enough to put on my must-see list – especially as star, and MMA fighter, Gina Carano , doesn’t look like your average Hollywood action heroine. She actually looks like she could kick ass.
So over the weekend Hubby and I huddled up with some champagne and popcorn at Seattle’s Big Picture theater with the following questions:
Would Mallory Kane be:
a) a ground-breaking female character?
b) a stereotyped female character?
c) a potential icon to serve as reference for future female action protagonists?
The theater was packed, and while waiting, we were treated to these choice words from the drunk assholes behind us:
“I like Girls with Guns! . . . . And Mothra!”
Le Sigh . . . . Yes, I like action heroines and kaiju movies too. But “Girls with Guns?” Women action heroines marketed as titillation for the male gaze, rather than potentially empowering, or even entertaining, pop culture icons for women is part of why their success has been so elusive. (The drunk assholes also hated Hanna – who actually was a “girl” with a gun, and was filmed using firearms more than Kane.)
Carano’s Kane is a woman, and she does have guns. (Her idea of relaxing includes a glass of wine and gun maintenance.) But, thankfully, nowhere in Haywire do we see guns OR Carano fetishized the way we have with say . . . any Angelina Jolie action film.
She’s neither a “female James Bond” or a “female Jason Bourne” as so many reviewers have already stated. (And are descriptives I despise – I hope one day we have enough women action heroes that we can describe them by referencing each other, instead of the iconic male norm).
The plot is fairly non-existent. A black ops super soldier seeks payback after she is betrayed and set up during a mission. The betrayal is a MacGuffin that provides an excuse for 90 minutes of a bad-ass in action. (And, as The Seattle Times’ Moira Macdonald brilliantly notes, with a phrase I wish I’d coined, an opportunity for “Revenge Cornrows.”)
The fighting itself isn’t over the top or stylized, but actually fairly accurate in its brutality and reminiscent of Daniel Craig’s gut-wrenching hand-to-hand combat in Casino Royale. Carano moves fast, I mean really fast, and I couldn’t help thinking about how the fight sequence between Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death had to be slowed down in order for the movements to be seen and appreciated. Carano’s speed made me wonder if something similar had to be done here.
It’s been pointed out that Carano is not yet as charismatic as she could be, but it should also be said that the dialogue in general is pretty goofy. Choice examples include:
“There’s some water in my backpack. Have some.”
“Turn around, punk.”
“Hey, Wonder Woman. You said your piece. Now shut up.”
“Hold up a sec, Mal. Let’s analyze your options.”
I do want to note, and even applaud, Haywire for actually being a somewhat progressive action movie. Here, as with Kill Bill’s The Bride, we have a female action star who is not hypersexualized. Sure, Kane takes what she wants sexually (namely, Beefcake Channing Tatum), but the story never depends on her sexuality and the camera never reduces her to an object of the male gaze. Even as she scoffs about having to play the “eye candy” (Cinnamon Carter she is not) when she does, it’s a tasteful evening gown rather than an excuse to put her in something as revealing as possible.
As a bonus, she’s generally not laden with some of the stereotypical narrative motivations given to other women action heroes: a literal or metaphorical child in danger (Ripley, Conner, Baltimore, Kiddo) or a rape to avenge (Sonja, Salander, Snowblood).
That said, we’re also never given any real reason to care about Mallory Kane – or whether she succeeds. It’s not that she’s unlikeable, but she’s also neither relatable or compelling.
Haywire is a spy/crime/mystery/revenge flick with an early 1970s-era genre feel, right down to the funky groove of the soundtrack. It’s little more than a tried and true tale of a covert agent betrayed by a greedy ex-lover.
Before the movie Hubby had asked me, “So it’s a female action heroine. But does she have a daddy who trained her, supports her, and is the only man she trusts?”
Why yes, in fact, she does. However could this have been predicted!?!? This ex-Marine is the daughter of what we presume to also be an ex-Marine and who now writes military based fiction. He sends her a signed copy of his latest, Desert Assault, that reads “Semper Fi, always – Love, Dad.” He IS in fact, the only man she can ever trust – a man she “could never lie to.” He says tender Daddy things like, “I haven’t shut my eyes since you were born.”
And would you believe her mother is never ever mentioned?
(So, will everyone who ever wants to write a tough female character please read my book? The daddy/daughter trope is played.)
Kane is the only woman in the film and it’s unclear whether this reinforces her status as a relative anomaly or, as we’re reminded by her former contractor and lover, we’re not meant “to think of her as a woman.” Does not considering her femininity save her from stereotyping, or does it undermine her potential as a progressive female action hero?
I feel it’s a bit of both.
Director Steven Soderbegh told Vulture of Carano that, “I wanted to build something around her, and I was looking to do something immediately, to get my head clear. I wanted to do a spy movie, like a throwback to the sixties, and I thought, Instead of a guy, why not her?” I can tell you that this exact sentiment was actually expressed in the 1960s.
The Avengers’ co-producer Sydney Newman recalled that at the time they were replacing an actor on the series he thought the role should be played by a woman. He’s quoted in The Avengers: The Inside Story as saying:
“Why shouldn’t Hendry’s role be played by a woman, I thought. God knows, women were, in life, doing incredible things. . . . A woman [on television] actively physical, attractive and demonstrating intelligence would certainly be fresh and different. Now, thinking about it, it was years ahead of the women’s lib movement as recognized by the media today.”
Keep in mind this was 50 years ago. Is a “throwback to the sixties” moving forward? Perhaps. In the film, Kane [SPOILER] kills an MI6 agent. It could be argued that that Mallory Kane is meant to be a action icon capable of killing Bond. I don’t believe this is the message meant to be sent, but as no other government agency is mentioned by name, MI6 is mentioned repeatedly, and Bond solidified notions about the secret agent in our cultural imagination, it does give one something to ponder.
Regardless, while Haywire is essentially a revenge film with no emotional stakes, it’s also female action film that along with another two other action films, Underworld: Awakening (also with a female lead), and Red Tails, led the weekend box office. When two films with woman protagonists in a typically male genre, and another with an all-black cast, none of which are superhero films, can do that, something right is happening for the greater good of our culture.
The first five minutes of Haywire are available online.
Heroine Content, which otherwise praised the film, notes that this first scene could be triggering for some, as it initially may look like a domestic violence assault. Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly says of this initial scene that “The brutality is sickening, intensified by the shock of seeing a man whale on a woman with an ugliness that, in the grammar of movies, is traditionally reserved for men on men with the expectation of a fair fight. As it happens, the lady — a covert-ops specialist with the pulp-fiction name of Mallory Kane — can take care of herself.”