Men are taught (or at least they should be taught) to never hit a woman. The lesson is based on the assumption that women are physically weaker and don’t have the strength to defend themselves (also, hitting people isn’t very nice in general). But what if the woman can not only hit back, but her job is to hit back and she knows how to hit back harder than anyone? In Steven Soderbergh‘s Haywire, mercenary Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is that woman, and Soderbergh is unapologetic about having her hit in return. The film forces us to confront our convictions about the fragility of women, and where that belief comes from. Is the movie a blow for equality in showing that women can take and dish out a beating like a man? Is a woman’s physicality always sexual? Haywire doesn’t have easy answers to these questions, but it has no problem asking them under the cover of a badass European flavored action-thriller.
Within the first five minutes of the movie, Kane gets a a coffee pot smashed over her head, slammed into a lunch counter, and suffers a flesh wound in her arm. But she gives as good as she gets, escapes with Scott, a hapless citizen (Michael Angarano), and drives away from Aaron (Channing Tatum), her would-be captor and former teammate. Driving with Scott, she tells him how she got to the point where Aaron would want to kill her in the middle of a crowded diner. We then cut back to an earlier mission in Barcelona and learn about her employer/ex-boyfriend Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), his clients (Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas), and what led to her being burned and on the run for her life.
The first half of Haywire is what happened to Kane before meeting up with Scott and how she became the hunted. In the second half, she becomes the hunter and goes after the men who burned her. But Mallory is never defenseless. It’s a matter of who strikes first, and while she may be expecting the hit and knows how to fight back and win the encounter, she’s still not landing the first punch in the film’s first half. But when she’s the hunter, no one gets the jump on her. She always takes hits, but it’s the brilliant exploration of how the audience reacts when we see a woman on offense versus defense.
Soderbergh has no hesitation in having male characters brutally hit Mallory, and he knows we’re uncomfortable seeing it. But if Kane was male, we would be indifferent. We’re desensitized to it and it feels like the natural order of things. There’s a programming to automatically see women as weaker, and physiologically, that’s true. Men are built differently, but in the modern age, a woman can defend herself and attack others if she’s as trained in hand-to-hand to combat. Haywire forces us to think about what excites us about violence, and why we suddenly become uncomfortable depending on a fighter’s sex regardless of his or her physical capability.
Carano didn’t land the lead role by accident or luck. She’s a serious, highly-skilled MMA fighter and Soderbergh knew that she would not only be able to handle most (if not all) of her stunts, but more importantly, that she could convincingly sell the fisticuffs. The fights are choreographed, but she’s trained herself to understand fighting stances and proper reactions. But she also got the job because she’s very attractive. Soderbergh wants us to not only consider how a woman plays from a position of physical strength, but whether that physical power is sexy.
In one fight, she attempts to choke out her opponent by wrapping her legs around his neck, and the shot is framed to clearly meant to make us think of cunnilingus. Now the audience is not only caught in the crosshairs of not only trying to understand whether or not we can accept a woman taking a beating, but whether her self-defense prowess makes her lethal. Mallory doesn’t use sex as her primary weapon (she remarks how she doesn’t do dresses), but the scenes leading up to the fight have her dressing up in order to go undercover for a mission. But what makes the these scenes even more interesting is that she’s paired up with a man who’s clearly designed to recall James Bond, a male character who also uses sex appeal as a weapon.
Haywire has plenty of rich subtext, but it always puts exciting action first. The movie doesn’t hide its ideas, but its primary mission is to entertain and Soderbergh has almost no problem delivering on this front. The movie is a cousin of Ocean’s Twelve as the director heads back to Europe, but whereas Ocean’s Twelve used the setting to create a fun and flighty heist flick, Haywire sticks to a sparse approach. David Holmes’ score only kicks in when the action heats up, and even the fights don’t go on longer than they need to. It’s a thoughtful approach since a well-trained ex-marine like Kane would realistically attempt to take down her enemy as quickly as possible. There’s a particularly smart scene where Mallory fights off two full-armored cops and the fight seems prolonged and somewhat anti-intuitive as she punches these guys in the chest. But then you realize that blow to the chest isn’t designed to bring them down. It’s designed to push them back so she can fight the other soldier and hit them in a more vulnerable spot. The only part where the action falters is when Soderbergh carries on a foot-chase for far too long.
Thankfully, he has Carano holding our attention all the way through. It’s too early to say whether or not she has the acting range to play other kinds of characters, but she’s a good fit for Kane. The character is a taciturn bad-ass and not prone to big displays of emotions. The supporting cast also does a solid job of backing her up, but they’re not carrying the movie. That responsibility lies with Carano and she performs admirably.
Soderbergh continues to show he’s a director who can take on any genre and make it his own. He’s like a chef who samples various dishes and then cooks up a familiar yet wholly unexpected and delicious recipe. There’s plenty of great action on display in Haywire, and for the most part the austere style manages to electrify the purposely threadbare plot. But while the action is fine, Haywire stands apart because Soderbergh wants to reconsider the male-dominated action genre. We’re not only asked if we can accept a woman as the dominant force rather than the damsel in distress, but if we can also still accept her as a woman. As Kenneth tells another character, “Don’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.” Kenneth isn’t the film’s voice of sage wisdom, but the audience is left to wonder if we can only accept a character like Mallory Kane if she acts like a man. Questions like these make Haywire a movie where the themes hit the mind with the same force as a kick to the face.