Monday, January 23, 2012

Action genre codes go Haywire


Vague spoilers may follow.

Haywire is not the first film to present us with a female action heroine. You know that. Where it is different from the likes of Tomb Raider and Kill Bill is in the fact that it does not centre around an established female film star. Gina Carano may have a different glow of fame about her to a certain subset of the audience, but cinematically, she is unknown. She's given a character name - Mallory - but what Carano essentially represents is her own persona, the reality of Gina Carano, mixed martial arts and kickboxing champion.

What Haywire presents to Carano, and to us, is the thrill of a woman kicking the hell out of some of Hollywood's most masculine bodies. Channing Tatum's star persona is one of the robust, perhaps slightly dim, but idealised hunk, one whose experiences as a soldier (G.I. Joe, Dear John, Stop-Loss) and brawler (Fighting) feed easily into his role as Carano's colleague here. Shame's narrative may work to undermine the posturing masculinity of Michael Fassbender, but in a pop culture sense, it's the film where he shows off his penis, and that frivolous discussion - the most dominant kind these days - has focused mostly on its size seems to giving Fassbender a shine of intimidating maleness. Even if Shame shows the darker side of masculinity, it still constructs Fassbender as a very male figure - the blackest level of his humiliation being a same-sex encounter - and this cinematic persona is bolstered by his brooding role in Jane Eyre and the turn to villainy in X-Men: First Class. Ewan McGregor, though reedier in stature, has a similarly naked history, uncomfortably coupled with his most famous Hollywood exposure as a Jedi knight in the Star Wars prequels. Ultimately, what these men (Carano does not engage in combat with Michael Douglas or Antonio Banderas, though arguments for them would not be too dissimilar) share is a confrontational level of masculinity, whether they've achieved this through action roles or corporeal exposure.


So to sit down in front of Haywire and see these men get badly beaten up (to say the least) might seem to subvert that image. It doesn't, because what Haywire doesn't do is emasculate its characters, even when there's a woman smashing their face in. That's to the film's credit - it equalises gender during its showcases of physical combat, even if the basic pitch of the film highlights Carano's status as female. What it does point towards, however, is a critical conceptual failure of the film. What might be its greatest strength is also what undoes it.

Haywire's action scenes - which comprise the majority of the film - are filmed with a bare level of realism that's even more immediate than the celebrated intimacy of the Bourne series. The kicks, punches, throws, slams and twists aren't accompanied by any sort of music, nor the sort of frenzied editing that's become de rigueur for action films. Director Steven Soderbergh presents these scenes with a docile camera, remaining mostly in long shots in order to capture the entire physical spectacle. What makes the scenes tense are the continual physical impacts on each character, both seen and crisply heard. When the film opts for a chase scene instead, Carano doesn't have the seamless luck of Jason Bourne racing across Moroccan rooftops - she's no less clear-headed as she navigates the Dublin skyline, but we witness her decisions and mistakes as she eludes the swat team. What Haywire has in its favour is this very tangible sense of physicality.

Yet this is also what ultimately works against it. As hinted, the reason behind this is the casting. I don't mean Carano's limitations as an actress (not particularly natural when she's speaking, but also not without a quiet charisma), but the extra-filmic baggage the rest of the cast brings with them. As I said earlier, what Haywire essentially offers is the chance to see a woman kick the shit out of a handful of famous male stars. But in a film with such tactile, raw physicality, Haywire sets up an unresolvable tension between the glamorous stardom of its male cast and the realistic tableaux in which they perform. They're given character names, but beyond that, none of the men here are constructed as anything more than opponents or allies to Carano (with some, inevitably, shifting, as Carano discovers the level of duplicity occurring). So we automatically fill in these personality chasms with what we know of the actors themselves. The fiction falls apart, leaving the audience lost between the vivid intensity of the action set pieces and the floating spectre of Hollywood stardom.


Haywire can't present a viable alternative to the Hollywood action kickers, despite its roster of stars, because it exists outside of the usual parameters of implicit genre codes and the style they inform. The choreography of the fights is undeniably impressive, but the constant tension between the invader (Carano) and the natives (the men) means they play out with a trenchant inevitability that can never coalesce, because this is a reality beating up on a fiction. Certainly this speaks less of Haywire's quality as a film than of how years of convention have shaped expectations and responses, but it cannot be denied that there are critical fractures between Soderbergh's conception of this endeavour and how the disparate elements cohere on-screen. Haywire doesn't work as what it wants to be, nor as what it actually turns out to be.

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