“It’s best not to think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.”
These words are uttered by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) to freelance operative Paul (Michael Fassbender) in a scene somewhere toward the end of Steven Soderbergh’s truly excellent but much ignored action movie Haywire. The woman they are referring to is Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) and the reason they are trying to divorce themselves from the notion of her femininity is she is far too dangerous to underestimate. Interestingly, this line also has another meaning; that dwelling at the heart of the film is an argument for gender equality, not only in the world of the film but action movies in general. Critically praised but snubbed by audiences, could the failure of Haywire’s attempt to cement Gina Carano as a bona fide action star be blamed on Hollywood’s oversaturation of familiar tent pole franchises, or a public’s unwillingness to accept a female lead?
Haywire tells the story of Mallory Kane, a covert operative in the employ of a private security company working for the US government. After a successful exfiltration job in Barcelona, Mallory decides to call it quits but not before being persuaded by her boss to do one last job in Dublin. Events go south pretty quickly with Mallory realising she has been framed for murder and goes on the run, determined to clear her name and get revenge on those who betrayed her. As read, the plot sounds pretty much like every action movie ever made, but what is clear from the opening scene is Soderbergh is fascinated with completely subverting action movie tropes.
He uses diffusion filters and wide lenses, creating a very bright aesthetic with a sense of space and geography in every scene and action beat. Carano – who is a professional MMA fighter in her first leading role – has an extremely dominating and powerful presence on screen so rather than pushing in too close, Soderbergh gives her space. When henchman Aaron (Channing Tatum) appears in the first scene and a fight ensues, rather than relying on quick cutting and hand held camera work, Soderbergh pulls back even more to not only showcase Carano’s fighting abilities but also bring an element of realism to what is a very gruesome beat down.
Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs also subvert expectations by drawing parallels between her struggle to clear her name, and a struggle for gender equality. What is especially striking about the character dynamics of Haywire is that Mallory is the only woman in the film. In her world of covert espionage she is only ever surrounded by men and all of these men are trying to use her for their own ends. The fear that she will leave his employ and take all his clients with her is the motivating factor behind Kenneth’s betrayal and her usefulness to the shady government agent Coblenz (Michael Douglas) is that of an agent of chaos to undermine Kenneth at every turn. So Mallory’s fight to stay alive and get revenge is also a battle to gain her own independence from these male-dominated institutions.
As a way to drive this point home, Soderbergh casts all the male characters with some of Hollywood’s biggest names including those already mentioned plus Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas and French director Mathieu Kassovitz. Even playing opposite multi-award winning high profile actors in her first leading role Carano manages to dominate the frame even when she is not beating seven shades of crap out of them. Soderbergh is slyly commenting on what is obviously his desire for Carano to become an action star in her own right and letting her play to her strengths to demonstrate her impact on the Hollywood scene; what a better show reel than one where you’re breaking Channing Tatum’s arm or crushing Michael Fassbender’s windpipe with your thighs?
Anyone can see from Haywire that Carano deserves to be a huge star, on the level of Schwarzenegger, Stallone et al. So what happened? Soderbergh more than makes his case for why she should succeed in the action genre with the way he showcased her talents, but perhaps he shot himself in the foot with his approach to the film and the genre. While critically lauded, audiences were left a little mystified by what was expected to be a star-studded actioner but ended up more of a laid back affair. Soderbergh wanted to keep out of the way of Carano’s abilities and in doing so did not satisfy the need for endless gun battles and explosions many action fans have come to expect.
Perhaps the film was overshadowed by Gareth Evans’ The Raid which came out the same year and had a similar theory behind focusing on the bodily toll of violence differing only in execution. Maybe the action movie landscape is so bogged down in recognisable franchises a risk averse Hollywood is not willing to take a chance on a relative unknown, especially since audiences didn’t respond with overwhelming positivity to her first major outing. Her subsequent appearance in an instalment of The Fast and the Furious series and her casting in Deadpool show she is jumping on that band wagon, but it seems a franchise is the only way for any self-respecting martial artist to break into the industry.
Gone are the days when a professional fighter or career martial artist could make their mark in action cinema – putting aside the fame of Dwayne Johnson and the other wrestlers who have gone on to movie careers as they benefit from the exposure World Wrestling Entertainment affords them – but from Bruce Lee onwards, there is a long history of Hollywood action stars which were not actors but purely physical performers who gained fame through their prowess and charisma. That these stars were all male is another concerning aspect. Not since Cynthia Rothrock has there been a female martial artist to gain any kind of major notoriety in Hollywood action cinema. Perhaps with the death of home video there is no longer a market place for martial artists and professional fighters in Hollywood who do not already have their own cultural cache.
Haywire really should have been Carano’s star-making turn. Like her fellow MMA fighter turned actor Ronda Rousey who herself has made her way into ensemble actioners like The Expendables 3 and Furious 7, Carano’s roles extend only to the tough offside rather than the main protagonist, much like the men before her. The current roster of female action stars extend only as far as the likes of Milla Jovovich and Angelina Jolie who come from the world of modelling and acting and can’t quite sell the pure physicality of the action hero as well as Carano does. For inspiration, Hollywood should look toward Chinese and South Korean cinema which has always showcased female stars in high profile action roles, like Michelle Yeoh who is arguably the greatest of all time.
While Carano deserves a career like her male forebears it still looks like the market place is reserved only for them. Even in their twilight years they still manage to make their presence known due once again to studios which are only willing to bet on properties that have a built in audience. Having said that, characters like Black Widow at Marvel or Wonder Woman at Warner Brothers (a character Carano has lobbied to play in the past) have their own built in brand awareness yet a solo film for them still seems an age away. Considering the latest palaver involving Black Widow being side lined from the latest Avengers: Age of Ultron toy line, it definitely feels like there is still a long way to go.