Reviews

Hyper-Realism and Ultra-Feminism in Action: 'Haywire'

Mallory Kane is a strong and principled woman immersed in a world of decadent masculinity.


Haywire

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Douglas
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: R
Release date: 2012-05-01

No question about it, Haywire is an action vehicle carefully designed, constructed, and promoted to introduce Gina Carano to wider audiences. Even though Carano rose to fame by virtue of her combat skills in the mixed martial arts arena, this film shows that she has the potential of being a charming and engaging actress. For sure this was not an easy feat, as Haywire features an impressive ensemble of prominent actors that include Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Haywire depicts Carano as Mallory Kane, an efficient mercenary working for a private security company. Under exorbitant contracts paid by the US Government, Mallory is tasked with dangerous missions around the world. Needless to say, Mallory’s assignments are not officially sanctioned by Uncle Sam. For instance, early in the film Mallory relates her role on the rescue and extraction of a dissident Chinese reporter from a band of kidnappers in Barcelona.

As the film progresses, we learn that Mallory has been double-crossed by her treacherous boss (Ewan McGregor). Thus, Mallory has to run for her life and freedom, fighting law enforcement agencies and mercenaries on her quest for justice.

Evidently, the narrative structure of Haywire is explicitly designed to bring to mind the antics and escapades of James Bond and Jason Bourne. But nonetheless, it would be unfair to consider Haywire as an unoriginal or uninspired action flick. On the contrary, the visual structure and sexual politics of Haywire are completely different than those featured in the Bond and Bourne franchises. However, even though such a contrast is Haywire’s greatest asset, it's also its greatest liability.

In visual terms, the film appropriately exploits Carano’s gymnastic physicality and hard-hitting fighting abilities. Indeed, Haywire is full of chases, gunfights, and hand-to-hand bloody combat. Just within the first few minutes of the film, Mallory breaks the arm of an opponent. However, the editing, choreography, and cinematography are the elements that make Haywire a different kind of action flick.

As a contextual reference, let us recall that the modern action film is influenced by three major visual structures. One of them is the slow motion cinematography as established by Sam Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch (1969) and advanced to perfection by John Woo in The Killer (1989). The second is the ultra-fast cutting and editing heavily influenced by the MTV music videos during the '80s, a technique which appeared to have reached its decadent climax with Quantum of Solace (2008). Finally, the fighting choreography is inspired by the acrobatic aesthetic sensibilities of Woo-Ping Yuen, who pretty much defined the dynamics of the traditional Hong-Kong martial arts cinema and whose work was instrumental in the success of The Matrix (1999).

However, Haywire does not subscribe to any of these visual paradigms. All the action sequences in this film appear to have been shot in "real time", without speeding or slowing the frame rate. In addition, these shots are relatively long, some of them lasting several seconds. As a final point, the fighting scenes do not feature the use of wires or other special effects to increase their impact. Most probably this forthright and unpretentious visual structure is heavily influenced by Carano’s mixed martial arts background. Indeed, the end result is to place the viewers into the action, as if they were part of the audience in a match at the arena.

By any means, the action in Haywire is brutal and realistic. But truth be told, from a purely aesthetic and cinematic perspective, these scenes feel spineless. It's perhaps ironic that the faithful showcase of unarmed combat in Haywire is not as effective as the exaggerated, hyperbolic, and operatic violence of other action flicks. While Haywire’s cinematographic style may appeal to the mixed martial arts followers, most probably it will end up disappointing the old-fashioned film fan. Paradoxically, in the framework of authenticity versus aesthetics, the hyper-realism of cinematic violence does not necessarily provide a more rewarding viewing experience.

A second point of divergence between Haywire and other action flicks resides in the subversive sexual politics of the former. In Haywire, all male characters are portrayed as decadent, dishonest, immoral, treacherous, untrustworthy, weak, corrupt, selfish, or egomaniac. For instance, Mallory’s boss is the typical backstabbing villain, while Michael Fassbender plays a callous assassin tasked to eliminate Mallory. Furthermore, even the "good guys" have problematic traits. Such is the case of Mallory’s father (Bill Paxton) who seems fragile and submissive, or Mallory’s colleague played by Channing Tatum, who is immature and naïve.

As with most fictional narratives, the virtues of the heroes are contextualized in reference to the failures, flaws, and weaknesses of the villains. Such is the case of Mallory, who is a strong and principled woman immersed in a world of decadent masculinity. Moreover, in the male-dominated realm of Haywire, masculinity has no redeeming qualities. In other words, the sexual politics of Haywire emerge as utterly seditious to the patriarchal society. As a consequence, the ultra-feminism of Haywire seems to be more drastic and far-fetching than the super-masculinity of Bond and Bourne.

A rather unique action flick, Haywire is available in a beautifully looking Blu-ray presentation courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment. Unfortunately, this Blu-ray completely lacks significant extra features. Indeed, a couple of brief documentaries on Carano and her co-stars do not bring any meaningful information to the interested viewer. But perhaps more important, even though Haywire has a distinctive visual and subtextual structure, it may end up alienating and disappointing those expecting a more traditional action movie.

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