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‘Haywire’ Is the Female-Driven Spy Movie Done Right

As we wait for ‘The 355,’ here’s a quick reminder that Steven Soderbergh’s stylish action-thriller invited MMA fighter Gina Carano to play a lethal operative who beats the hell out of a lot of Hollywood’s leading men. Ten years later, it’s still a killer

In the last couple decades, Hollywood has gotten the memo that women can be action stars. Of course, there were female-driven blockbusters before that — think of the Alien franchise or Linda Hamilton in the Terminator sequels — but in recent years, there’s been a flurry of action films featuring actresses (several of them Oscar nominees or winners), including Charlize Theron, Zoe Saldana, Saoirse Ronan, Kate Beckinsale, Milla Jovovich and Alicia Vikander. 

Jessica Chastain has joined their ranks thanks to flicks like Ava, and she returns in this weekend’s The 355, which finds her paired with Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger and Bingbing Fan as a group of international spies trying to prevent global catastrophe. “I feel like the film industry has really got female spies wrong,” Chastain said recently, later adding, “They’ve portrayed them as honeypots, and that’s not the reality of the situation. Women weren’t being used for their bodies, they were being used for their minds, which is a more interesting concept.” 

It’s easy to root for this industry shift away from tough-guy, often misogynistic event films — even Daniel Craig’s James Bond movies took pains to make the series more feminist — while still wishing that something like Ava wasn’t so generic. I haven’t watched The 355 yet, but considering it’s being released at the start of the year — essentially being dumped at a time when everybody just wants to see the new Spider-Man film — the signs aren’t promising that it’ll be very good. So rather than trudging out to the theater, I suggest instead staying home to revisit a superb female action movie that’s actually celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. If you’ve never checked out Haywire, now’s a fine time to do so.

The behind-the-scenes story is a fun one. Director Steven Soderbergh was in the midst of pondering retiring from filmmaking — even at the time, no one believed him, but still, maybe it was going to happen — and he’d been hoping to do an ambitious adaptation of the popular baseball book Moneyball. Well, that didn’t work out — instead, Bennett Miller directed the film, which ended up starring Brad Pitt and earning a bunch of Oscar nominations — and Soderbergh was feeling down. In his dejection, he was watching TV and came across Gina Carano, an MMA champ. “She had just lost her last [most recent] fight,” he told Time Out, “so it seemed like a good time for the two of us to get into a room, me having been fired and her having been beaten.”

Carano had done a little acting before Haywire, but nothing this high-profile: She was going to play Mallory Kane, an elite operative who’s double-crossed and then must fight to stay alive. From the sounds of it, the whole film came together pretty quickly. “I got the offer for this movie a week after I lost my first MMA fight,” Carano recalled, “and then two months or three months later we had a script and then four months later I was in training for the movie and then we had two months of filming it.”

Mallory punches a lot of people, and she gets punched a lot. “When [Soderbergh] first saw me, he said that he would really like to see me beating up some of Hollywood’s finest,” she said. Indeed, Soderbergh wanted to avoid thinking of Haywire as a female-driven action movie. “To me, the point was to, in essence, de-genderize her, and to not be patronizing by treating her any differently than I would a male character,” Sodebergh said at the time. “That was my attitude: Don’t do anything with her that you wouldn’t do with a guy. It would be insulting, in fact, to tell the guys, like, ‘Don’t hit her in the face, because she’s a woman.’ That’s not the world we’re in.”

In Haywire, Mallory squares off against a series of well-dressed, suave adversaries who all think they can take her down, only to discover that she’s more adept than they are. The plot was a nifty reflection of the fact that Carano was starring in a movie opposite established actors like Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas, and while she doesn’t outshine them in terms of dramatic chops — Carano has acknowledged that Soderbergh altered her voice, presumably to give it more gravitas — she’s definitely a dynamic presence. Or, as film critic Alison Wilmore put it, “Let’s not underestimate the satisfaction of watching Gina Carano pummel an impressive selection of A-list leading men.” 

At only around 90 minutes, Haywire is little more than a series of confrontations as Mallory gets to the bottom of why she’s been hung out to dry, with the movie jumping around in time and across locations. (Now we’re in Spain. Now we’re in Ireland. Hey, now we’re in the States.) But what keeps the film humming is Soderbergh’s love of stylish set pieces, emphasizing brutal, physical fight scenes. You feel every punch and kick, giving each action sequence a visceral thrill.

“We’re not blowing shit up,” Soderbergh said in that Time Out interview. “I said to the fight choreographers, ‘It has to be something a human can do.’ There are no fucking wires or stuff. When you’re talking about people with this skill set, there’s only a certain amount of options. You get the drop on somebody and then it’s over. I didn’t want it to become comical, like this thing just won’t end. But I did want you to feel as much as possible what it might be like to be in that situation.”

The movie, which opened January 20, 2012, wasn’t much of a hit. (Over at Cinemascore, which asks filmgoers to grade what they pay to see, Haywire earned a dismal D+, which is still better than the F Soderbergh’s Solaris remake received.) Maybe ultimately Haywire ended up feeling like a lot of Soderbergh’s late-career doodles — a fun little exercise he wanted to try — but it’s awfully enjoyable to see him in down-and-dirty mode. And the movie established Carano’s acting bona fides, helping to launch her post-MMA career. Soon after, she was in Fast & Furious 6 and Deadpool, and she proved to be one of the highlights of The Mandalorian. It seemed very possible that she’d have a comparable trajectory to that of Frank Grillo, another tough-guy actor who’s become a respected B-movie veteran.

But you know what happened instead: Carano got booted from The Mandalorian, with Lucasfilm saying, “Her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.” Among other things, she compared America’s political discourse to Nazi Germany, and she was a defiant anti-vaxxer who disputed the results of the 2020 presidential election. Apparently, she’s working on a movie with Ben Shapiro now, but the whole sorry chapter punctuated the strange rise-and-fall of an unlikely action star.  

Not that you have to ponder any of that when you go back and watch her in Haywire. Ten years ago, the pleasure was wondering who this newcomer was beating the holy hell out of Fassbender and others. As much as we love looking at established stars, it’s also a kick to feel like you’re discovering a new talent. Haywire showed what Gina Carano was capable of. It’s a pity everything went haywire soon after.