Having miraculously coaxed superb performances from lightweight talents like Andie MacDowell (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) and Jennifer Lopez (Out of Sight), Steven Soderbergh has lately been building movies around charismatic women who aren’t actors at all, at least in the conventional sense. Porn star Sasha Grey played an escort fixated on the bottom line in 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, and now along comes Haywire, a bone-crunching action flick expressly designed to showcase the kinetic gifts of Gina Carano, who holds a 7-1 record in women’s mixed martial arts. Truly, the man is a magician—guys like Tony Jaa and Jean-Claude Van Damme can only wistfully dream of a star vehicle that would make them look even half this good.
Which is not to suggest that Haywire’s script, written by regular Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs (Kafka, The Limey), breaks any new ground in this overtilled genre. Carano plays Mallory Kane, a covert government agent (details are kept sensibly vague) who’s already on the run from her own handler (Ewan McGregor) as the movie begins. Most of the first half unfolds in flashback from the narrative’s midpoint, as we learn how Mallory was sold out during an ostensible job in Dublin and barely managed to escape with her life. Most of the second half consists of her quest for revenge, involving a former partner (Channing Tatum) with questionable loyalty and the help of her badass dad (Bill Paxton).
There’s perhaps a bit too much emphasis on this forgettable plot at the outset, but by the time rising star Michael Fassbender shows up for one of the most brutal hand-to-hand beat-downs on record (Bourne movies included!), Soderbergh hits the gas and never lets up. And his instinct regarding Carano was sound: She may not be a great actress, but even her slight stiffness has a certain appeal in this context, and the role doesn’t demand anything of her that she can’t credibly deliver. She’s a superbly conditioned body in constant motion, anchoring a thrilling trifle that feels like a throwback in all the best ways.