The finest moment in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire isn’t one of its pyrotechnic fight scenes; it’s a facial expression. Shock hopscotches into fear before easing into awe as John Kane (Bill Paxton), watches his daughter, Mallory, a marine turned black ops contractor, dispatch an intruder who has her cornered in a darkened room. He sees the shadow of a woman crumple a man’s throat with her foot, and he realizes that shadow is the little girl he used to tuck in at night. This moment—a father’s wistful recognition that his child has found her calling, even though that calling is bone-splintering violence—teases us with a glimpse of another, far more interesting film.
This fleeing pathos is the only moment of genuine emotion in the movie’s entire ninety-three minutes. Haywire is more a stunt showcase than an actual movie, albeit one shot with that distinctive Soderbergh cool. Gina Carano, the mixed martial arts fighter who portrays Mallory (and by portrays, I mean responds to the other actors when they call her that name) has been ballyhooed as a “new” type of action heroine, one far grittier and more realistic than the Hollywood gamines whose tough-girl acts are fetishized for their incredulity. Joss Whedon has built an entire career from the “waif-fu” archetype; part of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s appeal is that she looks like the cheerleader who gets it in the first five minutes of any slasher flick.
The female action hero’s ability to execute an axe kick or wield a stake may give her power, but for that power to be legitimated, it usually coincides with her vulnerability. The first time we see Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) in the movie that bears her name, she’s being waterboarded in a North Korean prison, naked save her panties and bra. The opening shot of Kill Bill is iconic for its brutality: the Bride’s frantic panting and her battered face, eyes as black as oyster shells. Though Saoirse Ronan’s teenage assassin, Hanna, is spared these savageries, her youth and naïveté inspire protectiveness in the viewer.
With the blunt muscularity of a pitbull and a surplus of inscrutable cool, Carano upends this trend and replaces it with—well, I’m not sure exactly. Her character’s arc is like the film’s extended rooftop chase scene: we’re dazzled by her acrobatics but not terribly invested in the outcome, mostly because we know she’s going to be okay. And even if she wasn’t, we simply don’t know enough about her to really care. We know that she is close to her father, exceptional at her job, and (above all else) she eschews feminine frills (“Paul can wear the dress,” she sneers at her boss, Kenneth, when he tells her that her new mission is to pose as the wife of an undercover agent). “You shouldn’t think of her as a woman,” Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) tells the agent he’s contracted to kill her. “That’d be a mistake.” These lines serve as a directive to the audience; the filmmakers revel in Mallory’s macho side so thoroughly that they forget to endow her with other (presumably more human) traits. Scott Tobias sums up Mallory’s characterization (or lack thereof) in his review for The A.V. Club: “… Soderbergh and [screenwriter Lem] Dobbs have given her a role of Man With No Name terseness and allowed her to negotiate this world of powerful men by squeezing their necks in a scissor-lock.”
It’s a role that Eastwood could still play in his sleep, one that has been paying Jason Statham’s mortgage for years. With some tweaks to the script, Haywire could’ve easily swapped Carano for Statham and been the same film. This egalitarianism should seem admirable, a counterpoint to all those breathless headlines about the massive rewrites needed to change Salt from a Tom Cruise movie to another jewel in the crown of Jolie’s action oeuvre. After all, would we ever see Tom Cruise stripped to his underwear, sobbing to his captors that he’s not who they think he is, he just wants to go home (even if it’s just part of his character’s cover as a guileless businessman)? Would we ever see him rescued after his scientist girlfriend lobbied the CIA?
Or, we might ask if these things even matter. Bulletproof protagonists make for dull drama. In Salt, gender reversals go both ways: The boyfriend (soon husband) who rescues Salt from the Korean prison becomes her moral anchor—a function that is typically served by the female love interest (think Franka Potente in the Bourne trilogy). “Had a man played the lead role,” writes Slate’s Dana Stevens, “[it] would have come off as dated and predictable.” Certainly I could say the same about Haywire; however, the movie is dated and predictable even with a female lead.
Carano’s character is written without a trace of wit or verve. Though reviewers like Tobias argue that Soderbergh and Dobbs are simply playing to their leading lady’s strengths and sparing her (and, let’s be fair, themselves) from embarrassment, they make some uncomfortable correlations between her ability to kick ass and her refusal to wear the dress. When another agent notes, bemusedly, that Mallory seems out of her element surrounded by the well-heeled elite at a soiree, we’re supposed to nod with approval. Mallory can’t be cunning or competent if she doesn’t disdain pretty clothes and posh parties. The winking way the film packages Carano’s gender is problematic. “Don’t worry,” it seems to say, “she only looks like a woman.”
Other, better action films employ gender tropes to create actual stakes for their characters. Hanna’s voyage of self-discovery—leaving home for the first time, meeting that hipper-than-her-years friend with the lax parents, and realizing that her father isn’t all-powerful—could’ve been a thread in The Sisterhood of Traveling Pants (with a lot more neck-snapping and arrow wounds); the collateral damage caused by her quest for autonomy can’t help but remind us of the spectacular messiness we left behind in our own adolescent bids for freedom. Hanna’s desires and vulnerabilities may make her more of a “typical” teenage girl, but they don’t make her weak.
The Bride’s weapon of choice may be a Hattori Hanzo sword, but her rip-roarin’ rampage is powered by the abiding love she once felt for Bill. “I was a woman. I was your woman. I was a killer who killed for you. I would have jumped a motorcycle onto a speeding train, for you,” she tells him. We see her girlish reverence for her mentor just before he ships her off for the training that will turn her into the deadliest woman in the world. “When will I see you again?” she asks, her voice like something small and porcelain that’s shattered on the floor. The tragedy is, of course, in the movie’s title. Not only will she never see him again, she’ll be the one to make it so. Kill Bill derives its emotional resonance from the simple, almost Koan-like truth that, at the beginning of any relationship, it seems untenable that we should ever hurt, or be hurt by, our newly beloved. Sure, there is a vicious thrill in watching her slice her way through an army of minions, but what really keeps us invested in her story is the bloodlessness of the final showdown. We’ve never mowed anyone down with a samurai sword at dawn, but most of us have sat across the table from someone whose heart we’ve broken, or, who has, in turn, broken ours.
Soderbergh attempts a similar friction in Mallory’s relationship with Kenneth, but Carano and McGregor are two rain-rotted sticks knocking together—they just don’t spark. We have no sense of them as a couple. The only glimpse we get of what went wrong comes in Kenneth’s tossed off lament about never meeting Mallory’s dad. Of course, this is probably because Mallory (rightly) suspects he’s not the kind of guy you bring home to Papa (even if Papa was a highly decorated covert ops specialist back in his heyday). Still, the only character who expresses any emotion (let alone a wish for connectedness) is the smarmy villain.
Kenneth could’ve been written as an old army buddy who sells her out for a huge chunk of change and the story would’ve remained the same. Making him her ex-lover is a half-hearted attempt at “feminizing” Mallory. At the end of the day, she may have a mission, but she has no desire. If she’d been shown to us as anything other than an ass-kicking machine, the look that crosses her father’s face when he realizes who she really is could’ve been illuminative. For now, it’s just a tea light in a paper bag.
Despite its supposed intentions about introducing a new type of action hero, Haywire just affirms old archetypes. The truly subversive version of the woman warrior can wear the dress (and like it) and be a surgeon with a shotgun. She can want love and, if need be, beat a man to death with her bare hands. She can struggle with reconciling empowerment and cruelty, tenderness and weakness—just like the rest of us.