Haywire [2011]

One of the most common comments about Daniel Craig’s Bond is that he’s a post-Bourne Bond. The Bourne Identity is rightly seen as a game-changer for the spy action film. Bourne is a vulnerable hero – he can still do the hand-to-hand fighting, the running, the spycraft… but he bleeds to do it. Bond is an archetype, Bourne is a character. I think the attempts to make Craig’s Bond more Bourne-like are, if not misguided, not entirely interesting or successful.

Haywire might most easily be summarized a post-Bourne Bond, if he were a she. To my mind, that means its heart is in the right place – there is hardly an excess of female heroines in this genre. Female action heroes face an additional hurdle to their male counterparts, that they need to remain women, while skill holding their own in all of the derring do. If a filmmaker simply switches the gender of their lead, they’ve done no real harm, but they haven’t done enough either.

For me, the worst female action hero is Mrs Smith from Mr & Mrs Smith, because the filmmakers tremendously over-compensated for her assumed and presumed inferiority as a woman. There is nothing feminine about her character, of which there is little enough to start with. She is cold, almost robotically efficient. It is left to Mr Smith to provide almost all of the emotional content for the film.

Samantha Caine from The Long Kiss Goodnight is a far better example of a female action heroine, or Victoria from RED. These are essentially strong and dangerous ladies that could not easily be replaced by a male character – they remain distinctly feminine. One of the fascinating things about Twilight is how strongly and successfully it bucks the trend in the recent Supernatural genre for stronger women like Buffy and Anita Blake.  Mrs Smith, on the other hand, simply out-mans Mr Smith and while that’s a form of empowerment, it’s not without a cost.

Haywire falls somewhere in the middle of all these concepts. It is a pretty straightforward and conventional action film that features a woman instead of a man in the lead kicking-ass role. It does this with a good deal of Soderbergh’s panache, and it looks great. The fight scenes are all intense and exciting, and they are staged to really pack as much punch as you can probably get away with in a fantasy. There’s one revealing scene where our heroine must liberally apply concealer to hide her bruises, as part of her escape strategy.

It is also a film which treats the audience with respect. You need to pay close attention to the dialogue to follow the action and the plot, which all makes sense if you do. It shows you just what you need to see, and doesn’t ever take its foot off the accelerator or lose its focus. It packs as much plot into its 95 minutes to make 2 movies at a more usual pace. I also think all of the actors do a reasonable job of selling the story, but that is arguably its weakest spot – despite such talents as Antonio Banderas, Obi-wan Kenobi and Michael Douglas.

But what I keep circling around is whether the fact that the lead is a woman is value-adding, or whether with one or two minor plot tweaks she could have been a he. To an extent, this is being greedy – but once something is good, why not aim for it to be even better? What would that gendered action film look like? How would it be different or better? How can you frame a positive change in favour of a female heroine without denigrating the male – or vice versa?

It is tempting, for example, to think about a female action heroine in the context of her family and friends, compared to the solo hero. We see Buffy differentiated from the Winchester Boys by her connections to her surroundings and her network of friends. Those boys see everyone they ever care about die, Buffy dies instead of her friends. But if we think about True Lies, whose entire point is about the centrality of family in the life of the male action hero, then we may regard this as only a partially-gendered construction.

Separating the two on the basis of appearance can also be problematic, because it’s difficult to emphasize gender via costuming without representing the female heroine in a more sexualized way. If we think about John McClane’s outfit from Die Hard – a vest – we can’t imagine a female equivalent that didn’t represent the woman as eye candy. Unless of course she were unattractive, but nobody’s really unattractive in mainstream cinema.

Haywire doesn’t really feminize its heroine, but it doesn’t treat her as less formidable than a male hero in the same scenario. She is a woman who dresses as a woman, albeit one who prefers pants to dresses. The fight choreography is as brutal as you could expect for a man. The movie never trades on her sex appeal, but it doesn’t depict her in an overtly masculine way either. Therefore, if it doesn’t exactly advocate for the emergence and development of a specifically female action hero, there is no light in which I can view it as treating her as an inferior of a male version of the same character. Which is, given the genre constraints, probably as much as can be hoped for.

I was a little surprised to see its IMDB rating as 6/10, because it is such a well put together package; I started to wonder whether it was a reaction against the lack of hand-holding connective tissue, or whether audiences found Gina Carano unconvincing in the lead. She’s certainly no Matt Damon or Geena Davis in terms of charisma, but I would have put her into the same category of skills as Jason Statham, which is certainly competent enough to be getting on with. Therefore, I’m choosing to believe the general audience just wasn’t smart enough to join the dots and resented the film for it.

All in all, I really enjoyed this film a lot; it’s probably the Soderbergh film I’ve enjoyed most, though he’s not a director I’ve usually sought out.

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6 Responses to Haywire [2011]

  1. ekobyrne says:

    “Female action heroes face an additional hurdle to their male counterparts, that they need to remain women…. If a filmmaker simply switches the gender of their lead, they’ve done no real harm, but they haven’t done enough either.”

    Why does a director need to do something to ‘prove’ a heroine’s gender? What do they do to affirm a hero’s gender, other than generic ‘manly’ violence, which we expect from all action characters?

    Unrelated, I remember Geena Davis being completely unbelievable in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Maybe I should give it another chance, now that I haven’t seen her in anything for ten years.

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