Haywire (2012)

Posted on September 4, 2013

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Synopsis

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is a former United States Marine working as a civilian contractor. Her employer sends people to do things that governments would rather deny.

She goes on a mission in Barcelona with a number of other contractors, including Aaron (Channing Tatum). They successfully extract their target, and then Mallory returns to the United States.

There she gets a visit from Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). They used to have a relationship, and now he’s just her boss. He wants her to go to Dublin to accompany an MI5 agent, Paul (Michael Fassbender), to meet a Frenchman.

After the meeting, Paul tries to kill Mallory, setting off a transAtlantic chase involving Mallory’s father (played by Bill Paxton), a government official (Michael Douglas), an innocent bystander Mallory trusts with her story (Michael Angarano), and a shadowy figure who may be pulling the strings (Antonio Banderas).

Short Version

One of the best espionage thrillers I’ve seen in the last twelve months. See it!

Long Version

Now that I’ve told you to see it, I’m going to criticise both the film and some of the criticism that I’ve seen of the film.

You can probably all recite my usual themes along with me by now: Every story involves a character, in a context, with a conflict. Plot comes from how the character resolves the conflict.

The two things that you have to know about each character in your story are the character’s greatest fear, and the character’s greatest desire.

Unfortunately for this movie, Mallory is basically an enigma. We know what she cares about (her dad). We know she doesn’t want to die. We understand her context to mean that once someone marks her for death, she either has to hide and look over her shoulder for the rest of her life, or she has to eliminate the threat.

Compared to the other characters, though, Mallory is a masterpiece of character development. Steven Soderbergh directed, and he carries the movie pretty much the way he carried off the Ocean’s Eleven movies: Witty banter, beautiful lighting, great locations, and rapid plot development. It just lacks character development.

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Now let’s talk about some other issues.

Money

Haywire was a box office bomb. It reportedly cost US $23 million to make, and only made US $8 million it’s opening weekend. Two months later, it still had not cleared its budget. Let’s talk about that.

Expectations

If you saw any of the marketing for this movie, you probably thought it was a slam-bang action movie. Far from it.

Haywire is an espionage thriller. There’s lots of dialogue between the chase scenes and the fights. Plus, Soderbergh structures the movie to space out the action and the exposition. That means there is some jumping around in time.

If you aren’t paying attention, you will get confused. So, I suspect, a lot of people went in with one expectation, were disappointed, and spread some bad word of mouth.

Action

I see a lot of criticism, from amateurs and professionals alike, that the fights were too choreographed. What idiocy.

All fights in all movies are choreographed. Granted, some movies are more obvious about it than others. Watch any kung fu movie from the 1970s or 1980s, and you’ll see what I mean.

In fact, I think one of the best fight scenes ever filmed was the last fight in the original Lethal Weapon movie, between Mel Gibson and Gary Busey (or their stunt doubles, whatever). That was a dirty, brutal, fight where the opponents got in close and used shoulders, elbows, and knees as well as fists.

What I look for in a fight scene is how convincingly the fighters commit their bodies to the blow. Most fights, I can tell that there is no weight behind the punch or kick. In Haywire, most of Gina Carano’s blows looked like they had her full weight behind them. That’s a mark of success.

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And let’s be clear about something. Carano’s record as a professional Muay Thai kickboxer was 12-1-1. Her MMA record is 7-1-0. Regardless of whether or not you want to dispute any of her wins, she is the real deal. She got in a ring with another person and the two of them beat the crap out of each of other. She understands how to throw effective blows, and it shows in most fights in the film (there are a couple of hand throwing moments in each fight that I sighed over until they passed).

Now that I have defended the action in Haywire, I have to tear it back down. If you want, you can refer back to John Roger’s essay on action scenes at io9.com. I am using that as a tool for analysis.

The first fight scene with Channing Tatum establishes several things about Mallory’s character. That’s acceptable.

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The fight scene with Michael Fassbender advances the story, because it tells Mallory that she is in danger.

There is an attempt at escalation when the Irish police chase her, but by then two guys with guns don’t seem like that much of a threat to her. Plus, we, as the audience, know that she is going to live to the next scene. She’s not in danger. We’re bored.

When Aaron and Kenneth go to her dad’s house, there’s very little tension because the movie has not invested us in dad’s character. What’s going to happen if he dies? Nothing different. Mallory will go more berserk, kill a bunch of dudes, and the story won’t divert at all. Bill Paxton does a terrific job, in a few very short scenes, of conveying how much he loves his daughter and his willingness to die protecting her. We just don’t have enough time to invest ourselves in dad’s welfare.

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The only suspense in the fight scene with Ewan McGregor revolves around whether Kenneth will die before Mallory gets the information she needs. I’m a big Ewan McGregor fan, but he’s not a big guy. He’s within two inches of Gina Carano’s height, and she probably outweighs him. The outcome was obvious from the beginning.

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The chase sequences have some good tension going, because you don’t know what anyone is going to do next, or where the next threat will come from. But only the first two fights matter in the film. The rest is just filler.

Sexism

I also see a lot of criticism of the film for its female star. The criticism is right, but for all the wrong reasons.

Some people want think that the action is unrealistic because a woman could not do those things. I have actually read criticism in the 21st Century that claimed Gina Carano could not have won any of the fights with her co-stars. Really? Last time I checked, McGregor and Fassbender were actors, not athletes. Channing Tatum is an athlete, but he’s no MMA fighter. Carano could have snapped them like twigs. McGregor accidentally punched her in the head while filming their fight, and she got up and asked if he hurt his hand. She didn’t even feel it.

Some of those same people were probably also disappointed by the way that Steven Soderbergh defied our expectations for a female action star. At no time does Carano parade around in her lingerie, take a shower for the camera, or even show much cleavage (there’s a flash during her fight with McGregor, as you can see above, but it’s because she unzipped her wetsuit a little bit, and the camera does not linger). The sexiest pose is when she’s sitting on Michael Fassbender’s chest with his head between her knees – right before she shoots him. Gina Carano is there to act, not to parade around as an object for male desires. Granted, she’s got some room to improve as an actor, but she’s astoundingly good for a first timer.

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Personally, I was delighted to see that Soderbergh let her wear realistic clothes and, most importantly, realistic footwear. That’s right, folks, there’s not one high-heeled chase scene. No kicking ass in stiletto pumps.

There are a few people who, I think unwittingly, behave like sexists without meaning to. These are the people who act like the movie should be forgiven all sins simply because the lead is a strong female. That’s just as sexist as hating it because the lead is a strong female. The gender of the stars shouldn’t matter.

In fact, the way this movie handles Mallory creates a giant plot hole. When the bad guys propose using Mallory as a scapegoat, Kenneth’s only concern is how much money he will get paid. Now, in his defense, he needs money. The movie establishes that. However, he never says that they might need more than just Paul to kill Mallory. This man, who had a personal relationship with Mallory, has no respect for her. In fact, he displays no fear of her until after she wipes out his team at her father’s house.

Clearly, Mallory is supposed to be exceptional. It’s clear because she’s the only woman that we see conducting these black ops for Kenneth. Not acknowledging that exception is not gender-equal, it’s stupid. The only smart person is Aaron. When he has to fight Mallory, he strikes first. In scenes after she beats him and breaks his arm, he starts asking questions and insisting that she is dangerous.

It may be that everyone sees Mallory as “normal,” and she demonstrates no exceptional qualities until extreme circumstances demand them. Unfortunately, this movie is all about those exceptional circumstances. We only see her as a super-dangerous badass, and we’re left wondering why no one else recognizes the threat she poses.

Ultimately, I think the movie fails as an icon for gender equality for two reasons.

First, because it depends too much on Gina Carano’s gender. Although Soderbergh wants us to see her as a tough, smart, competent, person, writer Lem Dobbs (he wrote The Limey, which you should see immediately if you haven’t already) and director Soderbergh don’t develop her character enough. Instead, they use her gender as leverage to get us to care about her. Our response to the action is supposed to be heightened because we see a woman threatened, rather than a person.

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Second, because Carano is the only woman in the cast – except for the sex toy in Banderas’ lap at the end of the movie. The movie fails any Bechdel test because there isn’t another woman for Mallory to talk to. Haywire wants us to accept Carano as being as good as any of the guys, but then makes that exceptional because there aren’t any other women.

Direction

Steven Soderbergh is often described by critics as being clinical in his approach to filmmaking. They find his camera to be detached.

Where Robert Altman got his camera into the midst of things, and made it an active observer, Soderbergh holds back.

He is most interested in composition, color, lighting, and how they combine to make a pretty picture. That worked with Ocean’s Eleven because the cast worked as an ensemble to create the warmth of the human element. It cannot work with Haywire because Carano is a first-timer who lacks the skill to draw the audience in.

Conclusion

So I think the movie failed to make budget because of a combination of factors.

  • The marketing created a false expectation that the movie did not deliver.

  • Men are pigs.

  • Women are just as interested in action movies as men are, but women want the story to have humanity. They want emotional story arcs. Frankly, at my age, so do I.

  • It has numerous weaknesses in character development.

That’s a shame. Because if we don’t turn out in droves for movies with strong female leads, we won’t get any more of them.

Despite my criticism of Soderbergh’s double-standard toward Carano as a woman, and despite my criticism of the action, this is a fun movie and you should see it.

 

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