On the screen is a 100 lb. blond girl who dreams of her head reaching the 5’2″ line on the tape measure. Yet Ms. Twigs-for-Arms is able to throw a 200 lb. muscled man across the room, because she knows kung fu or is special in some supernatural way. This is the sin of “Waif Fu“, which allows girl characters to kick some ass without bypassing the strict aesthetic of emaciated female tv/film actresses. Haywire blows this trope out of the water, finally delivering a female action star that looks like she can take a beating equal to the one she dishes out.
Gina Carano plays Mallory, a mercenary for a shadowy organization that’s helping the U.S. government resolve situations that need to be handled with discretion. Of course, working just outside the boundaries of traditional legal arenas has its drawbacks, particularly when bullets and betrayal become bed-fellows.
Haywire is ultimately an action vehicle for mixed martial arts fighter turned actress, Gina Carano. A majority of action films hide their stunts behind cuts. Someone throws a punch, then it cuts to the stunt double who falls back on a mat out of screen.
In Haywire, there are few cuts. There are no discernible stunt doubles. When Carano is slammed into a wall, we’re feeling the pain in our gut. Whether she’s crossing blows with Channing Tatum or Michael Fassbender, it’s a terrifying ballet. Ballet being the operative phrase, because despite our horror, we marvel at the athleticism of these brawls. Carano gets in close like a spider monkey, crawling, wrapping, twisting around her opponent to take him down. It has the best fight choreography from a U.S. film since The Matrix, with enough grace and purpose that it would make Jason Bourne blush. A rarity in action cinema, the woman is truly the superior of the men.
When Carano’s Mallory isn’t kicking the asses of the opposite sex, we get to see the intelligence that landed her this line of work in the first place. Despite being caught in a trap with dozens of SWAT team members hunting her down, her acrobatics and clever maneuvers get her out of harms way, not a Schwarzenegger showdown with a mini-gun.
Director Stephen Soderbergh is obviously wanting to rectify the way women are able to kick ass in cinema (aka, do it believably), but there’s also an affection for the spy thrillers of the 1970’s produced in the U.S. (The Conversation). Paranoia, quiet tension, groovy soundtracks, governments working with shadowy paramilitary organizations to “fix things”, they’re all staples of the genre. Haywire is only the latest to revisit that era of U.S. filmmaking, with last year’s Hanna and The American kicking off the trend, and it’s a quieter departure from the similarly spy themed, but increasingly manic Bourne franchise.
About the only thing that does harm Haywire is the sound. Carano’s lines are delivered with robotic emotion, the human cousin of Apple’s Siri. Whether this has something to do with modifying Carano’s voice in post-production to sound deeper, the perfect example of ADR ruining an actor’s performance, or Carano’s weaknesses as an actress, only Soderbergh could say, but it’s distracting. There’s also the sound mix of the fights themselves. We’re seeing some truly amazing and painful battles, but the sounds do not support the visuals, distancing us. Considering Soderbergh’s imdb page lists three films directed in 2011, maybe the man just ran out of time to finish his mix.
Though Haywire may not fashion an emotional connection to any of the characters, that’s not really the point. This is Soderbergh’s Woman-On-A-Mission film and unlike that other Woman-On-A-Mission film Kill Bill, Mallory doesn’t need cinema’s “Waif Fu” to help her accomplish her task.
It will still require a cold day in hell before a female action star is allowed to be decidedly unpretty. One success at a time, I suppose.