In early 2012, while most of the film world was caught up in Oscar prognostications, one film quietly came and went through theatres, earning less than $20 million domestically, and just over $30 million internationally. That film was Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, with Gina Carano taking on the lead role of Mallory Kane, and its quiet box office reception is in no way indicative of the film’s quality. While it may appear, on the surface, to be a standard action thriller – and there’s certainly no issue with that, as the genre is littered with efforts that fail to even be competent in their execution – in true Soderbergh style, there’s a lot more going on in Haywire than it may appear at first glance. In fact, the movie seems to be Soderbergh’s answer to common action heroine complaints, and works perfectly as a deliberate pro-feminist argument in favour of the viability of action heroines.
One of the strongest aspects of Haywire, which supports this idea, is that Mallory Kane is set to fight actual humans. Throughout the history of cinema, action heroines have traditionally been set against otherwordly entities. The two biggest examples from the present day, Resident Evil and Underworld, have Milla Jovovich and Kate Beckinsale fight undead creatures and werewolves, respectively. Even the most iconic action heroines of all time, Alien’s Ellen Ripley and Terminator’s Sarah Connor, have xenomorphs and robots as their primary adversaries. This is not a trend limited to movies; Buffy The Vampire Slayer, one of the most well-known TV series of the last 20 years, says it all in the title. While nobody can doubt the capabilities of these heroines, this leads to an idea that action heroines are only believable in an otherworldly context, where the opponents are comprised of something other than men. Soderbergh, however, cuts cleanly through that idea in Haywire; Mallory Kane is no more than a human, but neither are her adversaries at any point during the movie’s runtime. Take out Gina Carano, and put in the likes of Matt Damon or Jeremy Renner in the lead role, and Haywire could easily pass itself off as a Bourne sequel. It is this point that’s particularly important; while some may claim that having action heroines face off only against non-human foes isn’t a concern, when it comes time to select someone to pass off the Bourne mantle off to, women don’t enter the conversation in a meaningful way. This is in spite of the notable advent of powerful human-fighting heroines in the last few years, such as the titular character in television’s Nikita (herself based off of Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, a notable exception to the rule), or Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Mallory Kane takes the idea that a woman would be unfit to inherit the Bourne title, and beats it down, and female characters are left all the better for it.
The selection of the adversaries themselves is also curious, and bolsters the idea of Soderbergh deliberately making a feminist piece. The first two opponents Mallory faces are Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender, both of whom are leading-men action heroes with rising careers. Tatum has headlined numerous action movies, with varying success, along with winning the coveted Sexiest Man Alive distinction from People Magazine in 2012, while Fassbender hasn’t done too shabbily in the well-regarded looks department (particularly after his work in 2011’s Shame), while taking on action hero status himself as a young Magneto in the X-Men series. Both men can be presented as strong examples of a kind of idealised masculinity, and could conceivably be seen as the lead in a film similar to Haywire. Yet, as Mallory Kane, Gina Carano does not falter when fighting these two. In fact, both fights are pretty even-handed, as it’s clearly a battle between equals throughout. Kane wins by toughness and capability, rather than contrivance. There’s a deliberate message Soderbergh sends here, both by the cast selection and by the convincing manner in which Kane wins the fights: action heroines are capable of fighting with any choice for a male action lead. Any notion that women wouldn’t be able to hold their own is dispelled by the way Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs present these fights, and how Carano handles herself.
The physical presence of Gina Carano adds to the theory. Action heroines, over the years, have unfortunately fallen into a certain level of homogeneity in physical appearance. While this isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing – few people would want to go up against Alias’ Jennifer Garner or Kill Bill’s Uma Thurman in a back-alley brawl – this stands in stark contrast to action heroes over a similar time period. For every Tom Cruise, there’s a Sylvester Stallone, and for every Jackie Chan, there’s a Jason Statham. The presence of Carano in Haywire is a great way to break the mold of what action heroines should look like, a notion that has only been challenged, to date, by Michelle Rodriguez. (In fact, part of the reason the Carano-Rodriguez fights in Fast Six are so entertaining is because the two seem equally matched.) In addition, physical presence is a key ingredient in a fight; the intimidation one can wield with an appearance of strength, regardless of its presence, cannot be discounted. A line in 1982’s Commando has an unnamed extra describing Arnold Schwarzenegger as built like a mountain, and the first thing people say to Patrick Swayze’s Dalton in 1989’s Roadhouse is, “I thought you’d be bigger.” Size does matter; physical presence, at least in the early stages, is important in a fight. Carano imbues Mallory Kane with said physical presence, proving that action heroines are just as capable of doing so as action heroes, and making a persuasive argument for diversity of body types among action heroines in the process.
There are numerous other concepts presented throughout Haywire that also lend itself to this theory. The key one is the presence of Michael Angarano; save for a single moment when he surprises Tatum, Angarano spends the rest of his time on screen clearly overpowered by forces bigger than him, making the character the film’s equivalent of the damsel in distress. The best evidence for this theory, however, is that the movie is never boring; it’s entertaining from the first scene, and Carano makes her character work. Combined with Soderbergh and Dobbs, Haywire cuts down the idea that a movie primarily focused on an action heroine cannot be fun to watch. One scene ends with Ewan McGregor telling Fassbender not to think of Mallory Kane as a woman, citing that “That would be a mistake.” On one hand, he’s right, as Mallory Kane is a rare kind of action heroine, and not the archetypal one. On the other hand, Mallory Kane is very much a woman, even if she is an under-represented one in media. Hopefully, Haywire’s thorough dismissal of any action heroine complaints and issues open up the door for her to no longer be the exception in the action genre.
— Deepayan Sengupta