ICYMI: Haywire (2011)
In recent years, “ass-kicking” women have been getting their due on the big screen. Growing up when I did meant I was privy to the exploits of Pam Grier via the Blaxplotation era and Sigourney Weaver in the Alien franchise, but they seemed to be few and far in between. But nowadays there seems to be a welcome explosion of women who can handle their own and then some in a traditionally male-dominated cinematic arena. From Scarlett Johansson in the Avengers series to Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow to Rebecca Ferguson in the Mission: Impossible series to Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde to Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman to Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, film lovers like me have plenty to choose from in this new dawn ripe with “Ass-Kicking” Women.
And to this list of Amazonian A-Listers I would have you consider Gina Carano. The former MMA fighter has gained notoriety in recent years for supporting work in Fast and Furious 6 and Deadpool, but what you may have missed was her breakthrough performance in 2011’s Haywire. From director Steven Soderbergh (yes, that Soderbergh) comes this impressive and low-key action thriller with Gina Carano front and center leading a cast of intimidating men that includes Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton and Channing Tatum. Despite being a Soderbergh devotee, I missed this one on its initial release and am kicking myself, though not as hard as Ms. Carano does in dispatching her adversaries.
The plot is about as standard as it gets, but thankfully writer Lem Dobbs (Dark City, The Limey) gives the sparse dialogue plenty of life. Gina Carano stars as a mercenary on the run. At the outset of the film, she believes she’s meeting a superior at a diner only to be ambushed by Channing Tatum in the first of the film’s many brutal and highly entertaining fight scenes. Director Soderbergh treats these combative scenes with the same restraint and patience that he gives to dramatic scenes. We get long takes and full frame shots to confirm these are the actual actors going toe-to-toe. In a sense, this film feels like a precursor to the exemplary stunt work and action in the John Wick series.
Because it is a Soderbergh film, we get his traditional non-linear storytelling with Carano’s current avoidance of governmental agents juxtaposed with her two previous assignments. We get a sense of her character and determination when a seemingly insignificant underling flees a successful extraction and we watch her chase him down for about five minutes and dispatch him expeditiously. When asked why she did it by a fellow soldier she plainly states, “I don’t like loose ends.” This may seem corny or conventional, but this succinctly establishes her character in a film where action speaks much louder than words.
As for the other performers, there’s plenty of toxic masculinity on display with Michael Douglas as the superior who is constantly impressed by Ms. Carano’s skills but still underestimates her like the rest of the Alpha Males, along with Antonio Banderas and Ewan McGregor as wannabe puppet masters whose charm only gets them so far. And there’s Michael Fassbender as an oily British agent who is initially assigned to work with Ms. Carano, masquerading as honeymooners, and who feebly attempts to neutralize her. Their fight in particular is viciously beautiful as they grapple and pound each other over every square inch of their luxury suite. Think Mr. and Mrs. Smith, only with a true fight to the death.
But it’s all about Gina Carano in Haywire. She obviously handles the action scenes with aplomb but even her few quiet scenes are believable, whether she’s flirting with Channing Tatum or embracing her father (played distinguishably by the late Bill Paxton). She inhabits this world perfectly and never overreaches. I’m sure Steven Soderbergh deserves credit for knowing how to craft such a performance by a newcomer, but I think Ms. Carano deserves the majority of the credit, after all, she’s up there taking the hits.
Whether or not Gina Carano gets a chance to headline another action film like this I cannot say. I can confirm, she is certainly worthy of carrying another such film or even a series. As for me, I admit I do find something both commanding and sexy about any of the aforementioned “Ass-Kicking” Women. And the fact the 007 franchise is about the be handed over to Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel) is liberating and welcomed. Based on her brief scenes in the trailer for 2020’s No Time to Die, Ms. Lynch seems up to the task and the cinematic world of “Ass-Kicking” Women thankfully grows.