Feminism / Film, Media & TV / Films

‘Haywire’ Review: Is an Ass-Kicking Woman Enough to Change Gender Roles On-Screen?

Originally published at Bitch Flicks.

Who is Gina Carano? That question might haunt you after watching Haywire or seeing its trailer. We need more women in films, especially in the action genre. But is having a film revolve around a tough, smart female protagonist who kicks ass enough to change gender roles on-screen?

With an impressive supporting cast (Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas), Haywire centers around Gina Carano as Mallory Kane, an ex-Marine black ops expert assigned a dangerous mission to rescue a journalist. When she’s double-crossed, she goes on the run, playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse to uncover the truth. Told in a non-linear narrative, the interesting plot ensnares you in the action and web of deceit.

Carano gives a solid performance in a good (not great) movie, especially considering she has practically no acting experience. Like stuntwoman-turned-actor Zoe Bell, she didn’t get her start in acting. Instead, Carano forged her career in MMA (mixed martial arts). Nicknamed “Conviction,” Carano is known as the “Face of Women’s MMA,” a title she herself refutes. In only her second film role, Carano headlines Haywire, catapulting her into the Hollywood limelight.

Director Steven Soderbergh said he was frustrated as a filmgoer. Tired of watching action movies lack visual aesthetics, he set out to create an action film “beautiful to look at.” As he flipped through the TV channels one night, Soderbergh stumbled upon Gina Carano beating the shit out of another woman in a match. She struck a chord in him and he wanted to build a project around her, an authentic action film. Rather than having a female actor undergo grueling training or hire a stunt double, he submerged Carano, a highly accomplished champion Muay Thai fighter, into method acting, including having a former Mossad (Israeli intelligence) agent ambush her outside a hair salon. Okay, that’s just ridiculous! Soderbergh asked Ryan Kavanaugh, head of Relativity Media:

“’Why is Angelina Jolie the only female action star in the world?…Because someone made her that way, and I’m going to make Gina into one of the biggest action stars in the world.”

Yes, my sentiments exactly! Why is there only one female action star in the world?? It’s about time a male director wonders the same damn question I ask myself on an almost daily basis. While many women appear in action films, they often fall prey to gender trappings and stereotypes. But women in films don’t have to be pigeon-holed as demure or dainty. Mallory, who “doesn’t like to leave loose ends” on an assignment, unwinds by drinking a glass of wine and cleaning her guns. In fact the film even went so far as deepening Carano’s voice. And women don’t have to be relegated to the sidelines as the rescued victim or the hero’s girlfriend. We need to see more empowered, competent women take charge in films.

With a Spartan script, Soderbergh puts the best thing front and center: Carano’s action sequences. Some great scenes unfold when Carano is opposite Michael Fassbender, a truly amazing chameleon, effortlessly sinking into any role. They share a very Mr. and Mrs. Smith-esque moment as two spies dressing up for a black tie affair. But of course the best scenes are when Carano fights. Or runs. There’s an incredible shot of her running as fast as she can through the streets of Barcelona. Her moves astonish. No wires, no stunt doubles. It’s all Carano herself. And that’s pretty fucking awesome.

Haywire reminded me of Salt or a grittier Alias. But the difference is Salt was originally written for a man. When Angelina Jolie wanted the role, they altered the character. The protagonist Salt was originally supposed to have a child. But Jolie said that no mother would ever become a CIA operative (hmmm not sure about that) so the child was erased from the script. When she’s trying to escape a building, she’s wearing a skirt and slips off her underwear to cover up the surveillance camera. After she’s injured, she goes into a bathroom and rips out the tampon/sanitary pad machine. Then she straps a few pads to her bloody wound. Gendered moves like these don’t exist in Haywire.

But maybe that’s a good thing. I mean, maybe it’s awesome that there’s no gender commentary but that the film simply revolves around a woman. In fact, the only time gender is mentioned happens when SPOILER -> Michael Fassbender tells Ewan McGregor, “I’ve never done a woman before,” meaning he’s never killed a woman. McGregor assures him not to think of her as a woman. <-END SPOILER I’m reminded of The Professional and how Jean Reno’s character refused to assassinate women or children. Society views women differently simply because of their gender.

The film contains some brutally graphic fighting sequences. I found the opening scene especially jarring. While I love action films, I abhor the glorification of violence against women. But it never felt like that. Instead I found it refreshing for the action scenes to not be softened because of Carano’s gender.

Regardless of her gender, Mallory Kane is clearly the best of the best in the film’s universe. Michael Douglas’s character pays an exorbitant amount of money to take her out of another assignment in order to hire her for his own project. She combats men (and wins), chokes people with her thighs, leaps across buildings, shoots guns, rides motorcycles, runs up a wall, drives a car backwards in the snow and disarms guns from law enforcement. There’s seriously nothing Mallory (and probably Carano) can’t do.

Another interesting component happens when Mallory seduces a man. I usually don’t like when a woman has sex in an action film as it usually reduces her identity to her sexuality and her relationship with a man defines her. But here it’s unusual because you don’t often see women as the initiator, not for any other motives other than she wants to have sex. I kinda like that.

Sadly, besides Carano, Haywire is adrift in a sea of men, men, men as far as the eye can see. Her employers, colleagues, villainous foes, the guy she accidentally carjacks….all men. Salt suffered that problem too. But Hanna, another female ops action film, not only had several women in it but included female friendship and cooperation. Sadly, that’s lacking here. They could have included both her parents in the film so we at least see her interact with another woman. But nope. It’s only her dad…yet another dude.

Putting a tough, smart and capable woman front and center, Haywire is a step in the right direction. And I always love seeing fierce ladies kick ass. But we don’t live in a world that revolves around men. Oh wait, yeah we do. It’s time we changed that…on-screen and in reality.

6 thoughts on “‘Haywire’ Review: Is an Ass-Kicking Woman Enough to Change Gender Roles On-Screen?

  1. You say you don’t like a woman having sex in an action film, but your all for her beating the crap out of people & shooting guns?
    I’ll never understand why you are drawn to female characters, in this genre, that act just as badly as their male counterparts in other films, brutalizing other people.
    Why is a woman in a sensual, sexual scene, a bad thing?
    Why does it automatically have to function as a form of cheap tittilation for male viewers, only?
    Couldn’t a woman strapping on a machine gun, be viewed in the same regard?

    Personally, i really dislike the whole Action/Adventure genre.
    Rarely, is there any depth to the characters, male or female.
    You view these characters as strong & empowering, but i tend to see them as
    cardboard cutouts doing stunts & not much more.

    • I don’t automatically have a problem with women having sex on-screen. I’m all for women embracing their sexuality. What I have a problem with is women objectified for the male gaze and female characters reduced to their sexuality, which usually happens once they have sex. And I don’t automatically find female action characters empowering. I find assertive, intelligent, self-reliant, female survivors empowering, whether they strap on a gun or not.

  2. What I really loved about this was that Mallory Kane character wasn’t just gratuitously violent.


    She fought (and killed) when she needed to do so for survival…whether it be her physical survival (she killed Paul before he could kill her) or the survival of her livelihood (Kenneth and presumably Rodrigo). She wasn’t running around shooting for no reason. When she had the chance to kill Aaron, she didn’t because it wasn’t warranted after she disarmed and incapacitated him. There are several moments of sexual tension between Mallory and a couple of the male characters, but it never seems exploitative.

    Gina Carano is an extremely skilled athlete and her athleticism makes for some beautiful fight scenes. She’s not a tiny woman and her physical presence plays up the strength and capability of her character. I thought the film was well done overall; however, there was a definite lack of balance due to the absence of any other female characters. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

  3. it’s kind of ironic this is one of the first reviews i read of hawwire. just a few weeks before, I had been doing some research into the clear lack of vegans amongst elite strength/power athletes. i have friends at the olympic training center, and i know numerous coaches and athletes at that level, and simply put… they are almost nonexistent. before anybody brings up carl lewis, he became a vegan long after he had become a successful athlete and remained so for a few years. he did not train/develop as a vegan.

    i am curious because i am not certain that
    1) veganism is definitely suboptimal for strength/power athletes (and MMA athletes fall into this group to a large extent, except that they tend to have a much higher endurance component to the their sport as compared to elite hammer throwers, shotputters, olympic style weightlifters, etc.)
    2) veganism tends to dispproportionately attract people to endurance sports. heck, when i was a distance runner, trained with plenty of vegans, and far more vegetarians. in the strength/power athleter realm? i never see them at all
    3) eating ‘cruelty free’ (accepting arguendo that a vegan diet pushes the balance towards less cruelty) tends to change people’s personality/etc such that they are much less likely to want to be a strength/power athlete (sounds kind of weird on its face, but diet definitely affects mood, and who we are, literally at the cellular level, so i would not discount this)

    it is wonderful to see a REAL athlete in a role like this vs. a angelina jolie. and there have been plenty of talented women fighters in such roles (rothrock, etc.) but they have been generally too low budget to be on most people’s radars)

    carano will do a lot to help people come to grips with their stereotypes about fighting and women, just like ‘arnold’ did years before. recall that when arnold was first cast, bodybuilders were viewed as ‘freaks’ in the purest form of the word, and routinely dismissed as dumb, etc. the only studies i have read on this topic, show strength to be positively correlated with intelligence, otoh.

    i guess we can be happy that haywire didn’t turn out to be another ‘gymkata’ …

    and just to clarify, when i am talking strength/power athletes, i am talking about athletes like ilin, roach (a friend of mine and former training partner), and klokov


    (roach… the first american woman to clean and jerk double bodyweight)


    note that elite strength/power athletes are most notable for thier explosiveness, proprioreception, blinding speed, etc. and not just their limit strength

    and of course karpinska. and notre in the comments, for one of the strongest women pound for pound in the world, the degrading comments on her looks, breasts etc. pretty telling

  4. While the idea of a female action-star is cool, it’s completely unrealistic. While Gina Carano is one tough cookie, there is no historical element or form of reason that suggests a woman would be capable of being a ruthless assassin capable of overpowering and subduing multiple men, at the same time, in armed and unarmed combat.

    Viewing modern film, which is usually and very unfortunately plagued by progressive liberal propaganda, I find it best to just keep an open mind. However, I can’t take an on-screen attempt to further destroy gender roles, seriously. My guess is that quite a few other people agree, when you consider it’s wretched reviews.

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