Once, long ago lived mighty champions. They fought innumerable odds, sometimes facing numerous opponents at a time, their finely honed combat skills barely contained inside their powerful athletic bodies exploded in the face of any who dared step in their path. These warriors came from across the world, their names etched in legend, Van Damme, Norris, Lundgren, Wilson, Segal, their names struck fear in the hearts of their enemies and wonderment in the minds of their devoted followers. But like many legends, the sands of time shift and erode, those heady days of glory gave way to doubt, parody, age and Republicanism. Those mighty names of old were replaced by a far more normal and mortal bunch who had the powers of visual wizardry on their side, able to manipulate their surroundings and their actions to perform feats even those amazing champions of old were unable to achieve. But there were those of us who still longed for the old ways, in larger than life characters whose very physicality and skill were their weapons, their mighty deeds presented for our revelry. Our faith long went unrewarded until one day the hope of a new champion arose, a savior for the old guard to be proud of and her name was Carano.
When the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger rose to prominence in the early 80’s with hits like First Blood and The Terminator, the entertainment industry did what it always does and attempted to cash in and ape the success of these new muscle-bound stars. For these audiences, the action was what counted and storyline and acting were very much secondary concerns. Special effects were capable of blowing things up but not so capable, especially on smaller budgets, of giving the illusion of physical and athletic prowess where there was none. So it was that the Jean Claude Van Dammes and Don “The Dragon” Wilsons of the world came in. As Bruce Lee had shown, it is far easier to make an action movie star when he already has the skills in place to be able to get into some flashy action sequences with the least amount of training, not to mention money spent, as possible. Life was good for guys like Van Damme, while not great actors by any means they could use their physicality and in most cases had a natural charisma that could overcome their shortcomings in delivering convincing lines or conveying human emotion. Then came a change, guys like Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves started appearing in action movies. Hollywood began to wield a combination of greatly improved special effects and the action stating talents of men from Hong Kong like Yuen Woo Ping. Viewer perceptions changed, regular-looking people were now able to kick ass on screen and with a few months training on how to move correctly and with new techniques in editing, guys like Stallone and Van Damme were not only aging they were being replaced, their muscular bodies starting to look ridiculous rather than impressive. The age of the action star diminished with the only people still getting attention being guys like Bruce Willis or Jason Statham, while still appearing in outrageous and unrealistic action scenes they looked more like regular human beings.
Fast forward to 2007. Fledgling Mixed Martial Arts organization EliteXC had a hook for their shows that they knew would set them apart from the UFC and the other wannabe MMA organizations of the world. Their first event on Showtime was their chance to show what made them different and it was their showcase between two women. Two young ladies entered the case, their names Julie “Fireball” Kedzie and Gina “Conviction” Carano. They had not only the best fight on the card that night but also one of the most talked-about of the entire year with Gina Carano emerging the victor in convincing fashion. A star was born. Gina stood out from the crowd not only because of her beauty and demure, quiet charisma but because she was the real deal. It was much touted how she had gone to Thailand and fought in their brutal kickboxing bouts and in the MMA ring she would string together three more victories and become the first woman to hold a championship in a major MMA promotion. Two events would change her destiny however, the first being her loss to Cris “Cyborg” Santos, a powerful Brazilian who not only hit harder was physically much larger. More importantly, Gina caught the eye of renowned movie director Stephen Soderbergh. While she put up a good fight against Cyborg it was clear that this young woman could be a star and perhaps getting punched in her pretty face for a living wasn’t the way to go. Soderbergh wanted to make her into a movie star much like the heroes of the 80’s and create a vehicle that would showcase her skills as effectively as possible. He succeeded more successfully that I could have dreamed with Haywire.
Lets get what Haywire is not out of the way at the beginning. This is not a classic thriller, the storyline is not what drives the movie, nor does the acting or the various plot twists of the movie. The plot is as bare and functional as they could get away with and while that will be a sticking point for some, most fans of classic 80’s action and martial arts movies will be familiar with this tactic. As was put so astutely by Bill on The Super Jawncast 35, this film is a punch delivery system. As with any great action movie of the 80’s, you need just enough story to effectively transport the viewer from one action sequence to the next and Haywire absolutely excels at this goal. Soderbergh obviously pulled in a few favors to round out the cast as this film: Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum all appear. Do not get the wrong impression however, this absolutely Gina Carano’s film, just as Drunken Master was Jackie Chan’s or Kickboxer belonged to The Muscles From Brussels. There was great speculation as to whether her acting would be up to snuff and while she is as wooden as most expected, her physical performance makes those concerns almost totally irrelevant. Carano’s athletic gifts not to mention the absolute confidence she puts forth in her physical performance is absolutely masterful. From her first battle with Channing Tatum through to the fight teased with Fassbender so tantalizingly in the trailer, to a rooftop-jumping chase scene, the efforts she puts forth are utterly superb. Not once does Carano have to use any sort of “feminine” trick so typically stereotypical of most female characters in action movies, she absolutely beats the shit out of anybody foolish enough to get in her way. Not only that, it is utterly convincing as Soderbergh allows many long static shots where it is clear Gina is herself performing the excellently choreographed fight sequences. No flash cuts to hide lack of skill, every single move she performs is laid bare on the screen for us to see and they are quite phenomenal.
Do most of the name actors coast by on their natural charisma rather than put anything approaching nuance into their characters? Yes. Does the plot lack much in the way of depth and believability? Certainly. Is it obvious Gina Carano is new to acting? Indeed. Is it very easy to overlook those things when the action is this damn excellent? Absolutely. Gina Carano is a newcomer to film but she is young, photogenic and possesses natural screen presence, not to mention a massive amount of athletic and martial art talent. While the Mila Jovovich’s and Kate Beckinsales of the world can get away with wire work and CGI to do the heavy lifting in the action department, if there is any justice Gina will get to show again that there is no substitute for the real thing.