Action movies are often, unjustly, looked down upon for two things. One is that they are generally thought of as lowbrow. Just set the camera up, throw a bunch of guns, fist fights, car chases, and explosions in its direction, and call it a day. Rarely are they applauded for their wit, composition, design, or style. Action is also often thought of as a guy’s movie, the diametric opposite of a chick flick. If there are women involved, they are there to be rescued or swept off their feet by the testosterone-pumped hero. Or if you are still thinking lowbrow, they are just there for the sex scenes. Then George Miller dropped a little wake-call in the form of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and blew away those preconceived notions with style, a female centered plot, and yes, car chases and explosions. Before FURY ROAD, though, there was another prime example that action movies could rise above the stereotypes. Steven Soderburgh’s HAYWIRE (2007) is the quieter, low key alternative to Miller’s epic, a luscious, sexy world of intrigue, brutal fight scenes, and an absolutely indomitably female lead.
Mallory Kane (champion MMA fighter Gina Carano) is a 100% badass independent contractor (the kind that rescues people, not the kind that remodels your kitchen). Just before she can cut ties with her smarmy boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), she accepts one last job from him. It should be a friendly information exchange in Dublin, but after a double cross she finds herself framed for murder and targeted by her teammate (Michael Fassbender). Kenneth seriously underestimates Ms. Kane, though. After taking out her would be assassin and eluding an army of cops, Mallory makes it back to the States. To clear her name, Mallory will have to keep one step ahead of Kenneth, her ex-associate Aaron (Channing Tatum), and the authorities, while unraveling a multinational conspiracy. Before it is over, she will introduce her foot to many a face.
HAYWIRE is a very rare beast, a full-on action movie that is dripping with style. It is gorgeously shot, with graceful tracking shots following our heroine as she slips in and out of trouble. The editing gives you room to breathe without sacrificing any of the kinetic flow. The score harkens back to a silky ‘60’s spy movie, giving it a glamorous feel. There is just enough humor peppered throughout to keep the serious script from getting grim. Under all the elegance, though, is a thoroughly badass action flick. There are all the things you would expect, car chases, shootouts, near death escapes, and absolutely bone crunching fights. Soderbergh mixes everything together in one sexy, smooth package that subtly messes with your expectations.
The movie open sets the tone perfectly. Mallory, looking cold and disheveled, is nursing a cup of coffee in a snow covered upstate NY diner. A car pulls up. She recognizes the man in the car and is not happy about it. Aaron drops into the seat in front of her, impatient and hung-over. He wants her to get in the car, she’s adamant about not going. Everything is civil until, without warning, he splashes hot coffee in her face and begins beating the shit out of her. His actions are sudden and shocking; it feels like a scene of brutal domestic violence. Except that the second Aaron’s assault is interrupted by the diner patrons, Mallory comes back at him just as fast and even more viciously. She disarms him, overpowers him, and breaks his arm. The take down is precise and unemotional. Aaron isn’t the abusive boyfriend, he’s the guy who should have brought backup. Even with a sucker punch and gun, he’s not in her league.
Soderbergh then flips another gender trope by having Mallory (politely) kidnap the wide-eyed good-Samaritan Scott (Michael Angarano) in order to get away. She guides him through fixing the gunshot wound in her arm while she high tails it in his new car. She assures him he’s going to be fine and tries to keep him calm, all while effortlessly evading the police. She even saves him during an ambush shootout. There’s no time for him to return the favor or kindle any romance, she dumps him off as soon as it is safe. Slam, bam, thank you sir. Her time with Scott is also used as a clever framing device for the story. The movie slips back and forth in time as she drills him on all the pertinent details of her last few days so he can get her side of the story out.
One of the cool things about the movie is that for the most part, the fact that Mallory is a woman is kind of irrelevant. She’s a professional, first and foremost. When her team comes together for her first mission, she confidently takes control right out of the gate. She is the most experienced and capable member of the team, and no one bucks it just because she’s a girl. Aaron tries to give her a little shit, but it’s more about tactics than her leadership and Mallory is quick to shut it down. The mission goes off successfully, and she personally takes care of the loose ends (by way of a beat down). After the mission, as Aaron clumsily tries to flirt with her, she grabs him by the belt and takes charge of that situation, too. When Kenneth wants her for one last job, going undercover as the wife of British operative Paul (Fassbender), she balks. “I don’t wear the dress.” Only his pleading and the promise of a substantial paycheck for an easy job convinces her.
It turns out that she wears a dress quite well. She and Paul make an adorable couple, slipping into a fancy soiree at a Dublin mansion to exchange information with a shady contact. Her unease at being all dolled up and on display works well for her cover, making her seem like a slightly overwhelmed and timid American trespassing into the European high life. Uncomfortable or not, she is still on the top of her game, and she senses something is up. Once she is away from Paul, Mallory does a bit of sleuthing on her own and realizes she is actually there to be set up for a murder. Paul is in on it, and Kenneth is the man pulling the strings. In order to find out more information, Mallory has to play along and pretend she’s still in the dark. Until they return to their hotel, when the game changes.
Mallory’s big fight with Paul has to be one of the all-time greatest cinematic fight scenes. It starts with this amazing sense of anticipation. Mallory and Paul are returning to their room, chatting casually, trying not to show each other’s hand. Paul is pretending he’s not about kill her, she is pretending she doesn’t know what he’s up to. As he gets the door, she is slipping off her shoes. It’s hard to do a round house kick in high heels (presumably). Paul isn’t taken chances, either. He sucker punches her in the back of the neck the second he closes the door. What follows is an expertly staged, incredibly brutal, no holds barred smack down. Really well trained actors can make a fight scene believable. Professional athletes like Carano can make a fight scene feel real. They seem evenly matched at first, but even though Paul is clearly well trained, Mallory soon dominates. She comes at him like a lioness. Paul throws her into a set of glass shelves, Mallory responds with a vase upside Paul’s head (Carano apparently did that for real by accident). Every hit he lands, she lands two. He gives it everything he has, but Paul never had a chance. Once he’s down, she finishes him with a bullet to the head, not giving him a second thought. Her mind is already on the next move.
Mallory is the only female character in the movie, and the story really boils down to how she deals with the men in her life. Some, like Scott and her dad (Bill Paxton) want to help, but can’t offer much. Some, like the high ranking company man, Alex (Michael Douglas), and his associate Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) say they are sympathetic, but have their own agenda. It’s even complicated with Kenneth, the man who definitely wants her dead. He claims the setup was only a business opportunity (“the motive is money, the motive is always money”), but a big factor seems to be that not only is Mallory leaving his employment, she also recently dumped him. When he’s posing as a government agent to get information from Mallory’s father, he asks him if she’s ever mentioned anyone named Kenneth, and he is clearly upset when her dad says no. Underneath all his covert schemes and power plays, he’s really just a jilted boyfriend nursing his pride. Earlier, when he’s briefing Paul about his target, he warns, “Don’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.” I got the feeling he was trying to convince himself as much as his hired killer.
Gina Carano was new to acting at this point and caught some flak for her performance. Some thought it was flat, but I think it’s perfect for her character. Mallory is a reserved, buttoned down, disciplined person. She doesn’t make small talk, she doesn’t show her emotions. Her professional fighting experience gives her an incredible physical presence. Carano fits right in with stoic action icons like Eastwood and Bronson. Her best acting is nonverbal. She has incredibly expressive eyes. I totally bought her as Mallory.
Much of the success has to do with the remarkable direction of Steven Soderbergh, well known of movies like SCHIZOPOLIS (1996), BUBBLE (2005), and THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIMENT (2009), among others. Everything about the film is unbelievably tight, no excess, no filler. Contrary to the title, Soderbergh is in control the entire time, handling the editing and cinematography himself. It’s all his vision. Sound design, art design, costumes, and stunts are all flawless. The fights are shot wide and clean, allowing you to appreciate what is actually happening. The movie is essentially a masterpiece. Tragically, it wasn’t a huge hit. There is some speculation (by me) that this disappointment was the reason Soderbergh retired from film directing, for three years. Gina Carano has gone on to other high profile roles in FURIOUS 6 and DEADPOOL, though nothing quite as ass-kicking as Mallory Kane. In a perfect world, she would have gone on to be the new Bond. I mean Mallory Kane would have become a franchise like Bond, not that Gina Carano would take over the role of Bond. That would be silly. We all know Emily Blunt should play the next Bond.