Before I saw this film, I read Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review of the film in Entertainment Weekly. The first two paragraphs of that review caught my attention:
Barely 10 Minutes into Haywire, a young man who had previously been talking quietly with a young woman in a backcountry coffee shop radically switches methods of communication: He throws hot coffee at her, punches her in the face, flings her across the room, kicks her, and pulls a gun. 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. Played by mixed-martial-arts champion Gina Carano, Mallory punches, kicks, and stomps back, handily beating the bejayzus out of her adversary and former spy-world colleague (Channing Tatum). Finally, she breaks his arm, wrestles away his gun, and drives off toward her next fight.
This gender-flipped combat is meant to please the moviegoer. But I call foul: The agreement to laugh off the realistic-yet-bloodless beating of a woman as cartoon damage in order to enjoy a filmmaker’s skill at playing with the conventions of genre is bloody depressing. If people of any sex are going to hurt one another, the hurt ought to at least be for high political or moral stakes — just ask James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Lisbeth Salander. Yet there are no stakes at all in Haywire, where government types and shadowy private operators are interchangeable plot pawns, as are their goals. The movie’s only point is to showcase Carano, an attractive, impressive fighter who caught Steven Soderbergh’s eye while she was doing her Muay Thai/boxing/jujitsu thing on TV.
The reason why I reprinted this here is because I wanted you to read it for yourself. I went into the film with these words in my head because to be honest, they troubled me. After seeing the film, I think Schwarzbaum is wrong on a number of levels and not just in word usage (You wail on someone. You don’t “whale” on them). And I feel compelled to provide a counterpoint in my review of the film.
I’ll chalk Lisa’s justifiable reason for hurting someone up to a difference of opinion. Haywire is a revenge picture, and revenge has been a motivator for one person to do hurt to another person in drama dating back to the day of Shakespeare. Granted, this film is more of a thinking man’s Commando than a low-rent Hamlet (or Quantum of Solace for that matter), but I find the need to try and kill the person who is trying to kill you a perfectly acceptable excuse for cinematic violence. I don’t need the fight to also be about saving the world.
Where I think Schwarzbaum is most wrong is in the motivation she gives Soderbergh in making the film. I don’t think the director is playing with the genre’s conventions just for the sake of playing with them. I think he has a very salient point to make about gender roles in the world and in film, and he makes it both narratively and metatexually with this film. The violence plays a distinctive tole in this commentary.
The film follows Carano’s Mallory Kane, an ex-marine who works for a private company run by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) that does dark ops for the Government. She is the best operative he has, but Kenneth is a bad businessman. She is about to leave when Kenneth convinces her to take one last, easy job. That job turns out to be a frame job and a hit on Mallory. Mallory easily escapes with her life, and goes on a quest to find the people who set her up and exact vengeance.
Far be it for me, a man, to call this film a means to support the feminist ideal, but I do see that in the film. Mallory is constantly underestimated in the film, either in her intelligence, her strength, or tenacity, by most of the men around her. And throughout the whole film, she proves again and again how much smarter, tougher and deadier she is than they are. No man in the film is her equal. Whatever they can do, she can do better.
Schwarzbaum is right about the violence. There is a quite a bit of it, and whenever Carano is punched in the face or slammed against a wall, it is jarring and upsetting (and despite what Schwarzbaum states, bloody too. There is one scene where Mallory must cover up her bruises and cuts with make-up in order to make her escape into the general public). But for just about every bit of violence inflicted upon Carano, the same has been inflicted on a Tom Cruise, a Viggo Mortensen, a Daniel Craig, and people don’t even bat an eyelash. If any of those men were the lead in this film, Schwarzbaum would have started her review in an entirely different fashion. And she probably wouldn’t have given the film a B- either.
But Carano’s character is one who works in a viceral, violent world, where people kill each other not with rifles on rooftops yards away, but up close and in person. To treat these scenes with kid gloves because Carano is a woman might not only be in its own way sexist but also a cinematic cop out. Soderbergh is trying to get his audiences to analyze the way the view violence on screen.
Other than that, how was the film? Soderbergh has shot the film beautifully. The film is full of his trademark style and flair. But don’t expect a full-out action film, the tone is more reminiscent of his Out of Sight. There are times when the action slows and the film drags.
The acting is good through out, including Carano. Her role is in the mode of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger”s early action work. She doesn’t have to do any major soliliquies of heart-rending emotion, but she acts serviceable in what she is given.
The writing shows wit at times but the plot asks more questions than it answers. This is not unusual for a action revenge thriller that is designed to showcase an action star’s ability to beat people up, but if you go in expecting more, you might be disappointed.
If Soderbergh’s mission was to examine gender roles using the action film as a focus, then the film is a success. As a good film, well, your mileage may vary. I enjoyed the film even with its flaws. And, thanks to Lisa Schwarzbaum, I got to examine the film more closely than I would have originally.