Haywire (2011)

Haywire is an excellent action movie with an okay plot that falters a bit in the last 15 minutes. But it’s hard to care too much about the story, which doesn’t matter in the end because you enjoy the great actors playing interesting characters and most of all the excellent fight and action scenes that are really impressive and well done. Seriously, those fight scenes alone are worth watching the movie. They look real, happen in interesting locations and have some surprises. And Gina Carano owns all of them. I read some reviews claiming that the movie only exists to show off Carano’s fighting skills and though that makes it sound like a movie I’d normally not be interested in, I totally fell for it here. Most of this wouldn’t matter, if the movie wasn’t directed by Steven Soderbergh because his skills are visible in every scene. It is not a movie he will be remembered for, but he is such a talented director and every scene shows that. I really like the underdog nature of this film and it reminded me a lot of The Limey, Soderbergh ‘s great movie with Terence Stamp that is similar in spirit (and has the same screenwriter). Anyway, it’s a very entertaining movie and if nothing else you get some great actors enjoying themselves (like Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas who are all excellent).

But we have to talk about the obvious here: this is an action movie with a female lead. Or do we? Article after article I lament the lack of such movies or characters and here we have a prime example, directed by an expert like Soderbergh who almost never relies on stereotypes or clichés. Carano, as ex-marine, secret government operations-expert Mallory Kane, can simply do anything. She is an expert in fighting, shooting, driving, planning, running, kidnapping. It is really amazing to see a woman in a role like this. You would never doubt that she is not capable of any of this just because of her gender.

Here’s the thing, though. While watching the movie I occasionally compared her to male action heroes in my mind and suddenly the thought occurred to me: “We have to stop doing that.” As much as she does all those cool things, she doesn’t really act “manly.” This is not the tough woman who is tough because she has male attributes. She is emotional too, enjoys sex and has her father (Bill Paxton) call her “sweetheart.” She is not a male action hero played by a woman. She is simply herself and doing the gender comparisons shows how much we are ruled by the gender roles. It shouldn’t be special that a movie like this exists and it shouldn’t have to be a small indie movie that few people have actually seen. I know, there are other examples, there is Katniss and so on, but Mallory Kane (who could be a franchise character all by herself) has not one single characteristic that seems problematic or forced because of her gender. She is not determined by her love to a male character (or two), her emotions are no weakness, she is not cold and detached, she needs no man to help her at any time. Name me many popular female action characters who can say the same about themselves. And look at this:

With her broad shoulders and powerful legs, she pulls off the kind of stunts that a willowy Kate Beckinsale or Angelina Jolie never could. (Rafer Guzman, Newsday)

Considerably sexier than the typical stalk of celery that passes for a she-killer these days, she deploys icy glances and fast moves with the verve of Jennifer Lopez in “Out of Sight.” (Kyle Smith, New York Post)

Beautiful in a girl-from-the-neighborhood sort of way, Carano inhabits Soderbergh's elaborate frame with wit, physicality and just a hint of ironic distance. (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle)

Her round, kind face splits the difference between Linda Fiorentino and Britney Spears. (Wesley Morris, The Boston Globe)

She's the man in 'Haywire.' (Colin Covert, Star Tribune)

Carano may not be a born or a natural actress; she is, however, an undeniable and heartening rebuke to the skinny-Minnies Hollywood favors over real women with curves. (Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune)

In contrast to Rooney Mara's overkill Hot Topic pout, Carano can play dom femme and express vulnerability, backed up by her physique. (Nick Pinkerton, The Village Voice)

A handsome, black-haired hardbody who wears an evening dress as easily as she does a hoodie, Carano exudes the sort of self-confidence and physical wherewithal that leaves no doubt she can prevail in any situation. (Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter)

Though strikingly beautiful and charismatic, Carano isn’t a conventional movie star. (Scott Tobias, A.V. Club)

Her dialogue delivery may seem a bit stiff but she has tremendous presence: an intriguing mix of muscular power and eye-catching femininity. (Christy Lemire, Boston.com)

You see, it seems hard not to talk about Carano’s looks or the fact that she’s a woman or that she acts like a man. The focus on her looks is especially discomforting because you know you wouldn’t find as many similar examples with a male action hero. She is also compared to Angelina Jolie in at least 50% of all reviews. Should we mention that the majority of reviewers are male?

My appeal to everyone would be to reflect upon how we talk about women and men, gender in general. Do we really need to refer to someone’s gender or is it a principle we don’t think about? This movie is not about gender at all, it’s simply a great action movie, and that’s the only conversation we should be having.