“Judy, Judy,” Jimmy Stewart famously told Kim Novak in Vertigo, as he forced her to change her appearance to that of his dead lover. “It can’t make that much difference to you.”
This was Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous and revealing line in his 1958 classic, a meditation on the male gaze. I thought of it when I read about Haywire’s post-production. Director Steven Soderbergh deepened the voice of star Gina Carano, an erstwhile mixed martial arts luminary who is as ferociously tough as she is ferociously attractive. Her real voice, too girly, wasn’t to his liking.
No director has so lusted after his lead, seemed so driven to make her a star since … last month, with David Fincher and Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. While Haywire might be a riveting action thriller with retro style to burn, it’s important to remember this: it’s also the pursuit of the perfect woman. It’s Soderbergh’s own Girlfriend Experience.
The perfect woman here comes with bite. Carano solves the major problem of the female action hero; she brings convincing intensity to the art of beating up men. In that sense, she reveals Mara and others as the cap-gun imposters they are. As special-ops genius Mallory Kane, Carano leaps rooftops, slams bad guys to the ground, and looks elegant in a fashionable dress right before she chugs ritzy champagne. Even the man sent to kill her doesn’t really want to do it (speaking of which, does Michael Fassbender hire a wardrobe attendant for his endless collection of bath towels?).
The slow-build foot chases and physical hand-to-hand recall Jason Bourne. But much of the film lifts from the John Boorman-LeeMarvin classic Point Blank, a film that Soderbergh admits he loves to steal from. And just like Point Blank, it’s a story of a double-crossed tough guy/girl returns on a mission of revenge against the person who left her for dead (a sadly unthreatening Ewan McGregor).
Action films stand at a crossroads. Do they continue in the chaos cinema vein, stretching to the bounds of realism? Or should they pull in the opposite direction, toward realism and dark urban grittiness, like the first half of Drive and Haywire? I don’t know which it will be, but Haywire makes a strong case.