“Hey Wonder Woman, you said your piece. Now sit back and shut up.” Spoken by a portly cop mid-way through Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 Haywire, the superhero being told to stay quiet is Mallory, played by Gina Carano. Handcuffed in the back of a police car, her character is an agent gone rogue, seeking revenge after being double-crossed by her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). Firmly entrenched in the tropes of the action-espionage genre, Haywire represents much of what late-Soderbergh has come to embody: a competent genre piece, featuring a star-studded ensemble cast. As such, it’s not surprising the film came and went quickly in theatres, written off as another decent product by the ever-prolific director. What sets Haywire apart, however, is precisely the casting, specifically Carano. This “Wonder Woman” and real-life mixed martial arts champion brings to the film her skills from the octagon, and the possibility of a fresh conceptualization of a female action body.
From 2009 to 2012 Soderbergh directed seven films, three of which may be called his unofficial trilogy of “body films”: The Girlfriend Experience (2009), Haywire (2011), and Magic Mike (2012). While star-studded, arguably even stunt, casting has always been important to his work—from Jennifer Lopez in Out Of Sight (1998) to the comically high-caliber cast of the Oceans franchise (2001, 2004, 2007)—in these three films, the bodies of the stars were integral to what each film explored. Moreover, each stars’ bodies represented a Hollywood outsider crossing over into the mainstream. In the first, porn star Sasha Grey revealed little flesh, instead exploring the psyche of a high-end call girl in New York. Her body, her real-life livelihood, remained largely clothed, a reversal of the über-exposure she became famous for. In the final part of the triptych, Magic Mike, Channing Tatum starred as an erotic dancer who dreams of making it as a carpenter, a story which reflected not only on his past as a stripper, but also his transition from dance films to “serious” cinema. In each, the extra-cinematic past of the stars informs the diegesis and the characters. Haywire, however, remains the most ambitious. More than any other of its (pseudo) companion films, Haywire doesn’t merely rely on a constructed idea of Carano the MMA champion, but on her literal body as performance.
Positing Haywire’s relevancy—and more specifically Carano’s body—requires acknowledging how the film is indebted to the recent increasing popularity of Ultimate Fighting Champion and mixed martial arts. Founded in 1993, UFC rose to popularity in the subsequent decade with the FX reality show “The Ultimate Fighter,” which debuted in 2005. Taking cinematic representations as means to gauge cultural saturation, by the mid-to-late noughties MMA had made its way into several Hollywood productions: Never Back Down (2008), Fighting (2009), and Warrior (2011). It became canonized, as it were, with Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (2011). The modern ür-text of meta-cinematic action films, Stallone’s casting purposefully encompassed a variety of past and present actors, whose skills marked various periods in the genre: Stallone and Dolph Lundgren as the “hard bodies” of the 1980s, Jet Li and the Hong Kong influence, Jason Statham and the Western appropriation of martial arts, and Randy Couture, the former MMA champion. With Couture placed alongside these stars of the action cannon, the sport was cemented as the emerging form of watching bodies collide and combat in contemporary action films.
Soderbergh’s casting of Carano directly tapped into this budding popularity, the twist being her gender. In and of itself, this is nothing new; Double Impact (1991) used female wrestler Corrina Everson, but her role in the film was nothing more than tokenism. Superficially, Haywire may seem to fit this mould, as well as that of the post-feminist “action babe” genre, seen with Anne Parillaud in La Femme Nikita (1990), Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 (1991), or Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). In the former two films, plots rely on Pygmalion narratives of transformation and in the latter the constructed sex appeal of their star’s power. Carano’s character, however, eschews this. Because of her outsider status as MMA fighter rather than a professional actor, Carano came loaded to Haywire as a fully formed and functional body.
In the opening sequence Mallory slams Aaron (played by the thick-necked and burly Tatum) to the ground, smashing a coffee pot on his head as they grapple. From the get go she is all body. Running, punching, and kicking her way through the film, everything becomes secondary to Mallory’s abilities. Most of all speech. As Soderbergh found her voice to be too stereotypically feminine, she was dubbed out in post-production. Ostensibly, Carano didn’t have a speaking part. Though typically this could be read as silencing, Carano is never truly quiet on screen. A physical presence in nearly every scene, she communicates, as it were, through a pure bodily performance. Mallory’s body propels the film (and narrative) forward, as the camera seemingly struggles to keep pace with her. In one scene she pursues a man through Barcelona’s streets, running determinedly towards the camera which rapidly cuts to behind her, as if the force of her body lunging toward the camera is too much to bear. The camera almost can’t keep up.
This pure physicality is what sets Mallory apart from the likes of Lara Croft and the “comic book” female body. The paradox of “butt-kicking” while still fulfilling idealized and objectified male conceptions of female form—see: Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011)—the action babe hinges on breasts and buttocks being encased in spandex. Mallory, however, remains purely functional. Haywire addresses this directly when she is sent on an assignment, going undercover as another agent’s wife. “You want me to be eye-candy?” she asks Kenneth. “You want me to wear the dress? I don’t even know how to play that.” Crucially, it is during this make-under where she’s put into the gown that her double-crossing ensues. Forced into the typical arm candy role, it is here where Mallory is made most vulnerable; a move which clearly rejects the damsel fighting in a dress trope. Further, Haywire’s climax doesn’t see Mallory don the slinky number as is so often the case. Instead, she puts on black baggy clothes, Marine black-ops style face paint, and corn-rows her hair (which recalls Carano’s octagon look).
The film, however, is not perfect. At heart a daddy-daughter story, the climax of Mallory’s mission hinges on rescuing her father (Bill Paxton), her mentor and confidant. Mallory has no female network—no Charlie’s Angels, for better or for worse—which may be read as positioning her as a lone wolf anomaly. Yet, this is also the classic action trope: Stallone does it on his own in First Blood (1982), Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando (1985), more recently Jason Bourne in the trilogy named for him (2002, 2004, 2007), and the list goes on. And much like these men, her performance is one that is body-based, though not in the conventional sense when it comes to the female form. She doesn’t strip or dance, nor is her “hard body” fragmented into breasts and butts, separate sexualized entities from her kicking legs or punching arms. Carano stars as a unified whole body that is primed to function. Even though she’s told to shut up, she’s never silent. It’s all body talk.
Kiva Reardon is the founding editor of cléo.
Image credit: Alliance Films