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The Satanic obsidian eyes of Gina Carano are like twin voids reflecting only the tiniest glimmers of light, revealing nothing within but somehow peering back into us like a Nietzchean abyss. SheÂs indistinguishable from the character she portrays in Steven SoderberghÂs Haywire, which is an unusual hybrid of his experimental films featuring non-actors (such as Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience) and his star-studded mainstream blockbusters. Here, the guise of a duplicity-wrought espionage yarn riddled with requisite double-crosses and globetrotting is used to examine gender roles in the cinema, with an excess of glib detachment and audience-alienating genre deconstruction.
We are dropped in medias res into a tense yet deceptively mundane encounter in a coffee shop: two former lovers and colleagues in a government-contracted wet works company are reunited after a mission goes pear-shaped. References to previous operations are bandied about where niceties would be normally; oblique mentions of ÂBarcelonaÂ, ÂDublinÂ and ÂPaulÂ hint at the convoluted plot to come, and not a single naturalistic sentence springs from the lips of either Carano (whose robotic line readings are reminiscent of those dreaded automated menus one must navigate over the phone) or sentient beef slab Channing Tatum (who looks Brando-esque in comparison). ItÂs a strange choice to have a cold opening like this, with mystifying dialogue reminiscent of the train conversation in The Manchurian Candidate and allusions to stuff that only makes sense after the entire convoluted plot has been processed.
More blatant, and involving, is the fluctuating power dynamic: Fridge Largemeat demands Carano Âget in [his] carÂ less than 10 seconds after sitting down at her booth; even after being repeatedly rebuffed he repeats his order, even though he knows that she knows to accept the offer would be nothing short of a death sentence. After failing to intimidate the lady, Splint Chesthair abandons his attempts at dialectic resolution and throws a steaming cup of joe into her face and launches into his very best impression of Ike Turner in the middle of the restaurant. Only when a nearby twerp intervenes is she able to mount Blast Hardcheese, emasculate him by taking away his bulky 9mm automatic, and break his arm for good measure.
The fight scenes in Haywire are down-and-dirty brawls, with every damaging punch, every kick, grapple, head butt, and gouging or bashing with improvised weapons filmed with clinical precision. Not only are these scenes refreshingly brutal (and comprehensible to boot) but theyÂre also overtly sexual, with entwined limbs, gasping, grunting and thrusting in confined areas with no regard for decorum whatsoever. CaranoÂs specialty in the Octagon is in submission holds, which proves beneficial during one of several intimate struggles in the film, where she manages to wriggle and twist around to achieve dominant positions with the ease of a serpent and choke her male adversary almost to death with nought save her tree-trunk-like thighs. Xenia Onatopp would be proud.
Said scene occurs after a debasing mission where she is forced to Âwear the dressÂ as one half of a Âpower coupleÂ attending a social function in Dublin. The other half is the enigmatic ÂPaulÂ, played by critical golden boy Michael Fassbender, providing as extreme a dichotomy of acting ability as one could ever hope for, though one should never be confused as to which half of the couple truly possesses the ÂpowerÂ. ThereÂs a meaningless tete-a-tete with Mathieu Kassovitz (who really should act more instead of directing horseshit like Babylon A.D. and Gothika) and a surprise discovery of a corpse (where Carano expresses surprise by biting her lip) before heading back to the hotel for some sweaty sex/combat.
Before their sham relationship goes sour, their brief stay in the hotel ventures into Last Tango in Paris territory when, during their respective cleaning-up times in the bathroom, each party takes time to rummage through the otherÂs personal belongings: he in her vaginal purse and she by plugging his short, stubby cellular device into her laptop. Alas, thereÂs no time to experiment with butter (though, lest we not consider Fassbender to be one of the Best Actors of His Generation, a deeper flashback features the notorious real-life pussyhound uttering with utmost conviction, ÂIÂve never done a woman beforeÂ) before the ginger lad is thwarted in his struggle for a blunt, blocky automatic pistol stowed beneath their unused queen-sized bed, choked with thighs after getting his face rammed into CaranoÂs crotch, and executed with merciless brevity through a pillow.
The remainder of the movie consists of Carano/Kane tracking down an assortment of high-profile actors who have wronged her through their involvement, however tangential, in this hopelessly tangled web of deceit, duplicity, deception, despair, and dumbassery. We have Antonio Banderas with a full-on Unabomber beard, Michael Douglas at his most weasel-like, Kassovitz, and the insufferably bland Ewan McGregor, who insists on using the same non-regional American accent in every fucking thing he does as if this will make us forget that his natural Scottish accent is hilarious. Those watching Haywire expecting Novelty Deaths or a high Corpse Count will be sorely let down; two of these treacherous men are killed off-screen and the other two manage to weasel their way out of any sort of punishment.
Strangely enough, Soderbergh has time to kill two condescending police officers, who donÂt believe CaranoÂs elaborate tales of espionage, government wet work and double-crosses, have the tenacity to refer to her as ÂWonder WomanÂ, and are promptly picked off by snipers during a weird, lethargic, tension-free shootout and escape. The 90-odd minutes of Haywire are filled with long, deadly stretches of plot between the handful of expertly mounted action sequences, as if Soderbergh didnÂt think that the gender dynamics and bone-crushing were enough to hold our interest; he wastes interminable gobs of molasses-paced time telling a well-worn story of treachery and countless backstabs that no one who isnÂt armed with a notebook and a few tabs of Adderall down the hatch could ever hope to decipher.
Even the appearance of Bill Paxton, as the one sympathetic masculine character, and the inevitable demise of Biff Rockgroin, cannot compensate for this fatal flaw. Perhaps if Paxton were screaming out poetic lines of hick profanity a la Hudson in Aliens, we could be distracted from how the climactic sequence in his snowbound New Mexico chalet doesnÂt resolve any plot threads save for the liquidation of Gristle McThornbody. Then itÂ s a bit more globetrotting before the movie just sort of peters out like a night of bad drunken sex. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the conclusion is that Soderbergh seems to have decided that, with all his demonstrated proficiency in directing brutality, he has decided that he’s above doing such a thing when it comes to providing plot resolution. Perhaps he might direct a great action film someday. Perhaps even a genuinely great film. But first, he should work on extracting his head from his own nether regions.
Ultimately, each and every one of CaranoÂs adversaries goes down like a bitch and her personal safety is never once questioned, even as she goes on the lam as a wanted fugitive and does her own stunts, bounding across rooftops and falling into alleys and manhandling a dozen aggressive dudes. She is a predator righting all the misdeeds against wronged women not only in the cinematic landscape but also the real world; every duplicitous man, no matter how well-protected, is but easy prey thanks to her limitless resourcefulness and raw brute strength. ItÂs telling that there are no other female characters in Haywire: to distract from CaranoÂs overpowering presence would be to undermine the message of the entire film. Whether or not this message will resonate with its audience remains to be seen.