Like any Steven Soderbergh film, Haywire comes with a level of sophistication—an achronological structure, a multi-toned color palette, a knotty tale of alliances and double-crosses—but in this case, it’s all an elaborate smokescreen. In truth, Haywire is simply a delivery system for ass-kickings, calibrated to the specific talents of Gina Carano, a former mixed-martial-arts star and American Gladiator whose fists (and feet) of fury can rattle skulls and cave in chests. Screenwriter Lem Dobbs, who worked with Soderbergh on Kafka and The Limey, has streamlined the latter into a more basic revenge tale—with elements of an international spy thriller—that’s written within Carano’s range and hits action beats with satisfying regularity. It’s his and Soderbergh’s idea of lizard-brain entertainment, and its pleasures are remarkably distilled.
After years of buying the thin fantasy that wired-up celebrities like Cameron Diaz can tear up a room, the opening scene alone is a bracing tonic, as Carano and Channing Tatum lay waste to a diner in upstate New York. As revealed via flashback, Tatum is one of Carano’s ex-partners in the special-ops business, and she’s been marked for death since they joined forces to rescue a dissident Chinese journalist in Barcelona. Carano doesn’t know precisely who’s responsible for her betrayal, which involves a complicated ring of private and government contracts, but a few bosses or clients emerge as suspects, played by recognizable faces like Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, and Antonio Banderas. Michael Fassbender also turns up as an agent who tries to take her out in a four-star hotel room in Dublin.
Though strikingly beautiful and charismatic, Carano isn’t a conventional movie star: She has an athlete’s compact frame, and looks far more eager when she’s putting it to use than when she’s trading lines with a battery of famous actors. Happily, Soderbergh and Dobbs have given her a role of Man With No Name terseness and allowed her to negotiate this world of powerful men by squeezing their necks in a scissor-lock. In spite of the pulsing David Holmes score at his disposal, Soderbergh drops all but the raw sound of pummeling from the fights, a masterstroke that Carano’s dexterity makes possible. She may have Cynthia Rothrock’s career in front of her, but for now, she’s a new model of action star.