Mixed-martial-arts champ Gina Carano isn't the first fighting star to attempt a transition to a movie career, a crossover that sometimes works (Dwayne Johnson) but mostly doesn't (Jesse Ventura, Chuck Norris et al.).
But with the guidance of the endlessly experimental Steven Soderbergh, Carano makes quite a credible transition in "Haywire." She plays Mallory Kane, a tough-as-nails black-ops agent who takes matters into her own hands following a double-cross.
The part isn't a stretch for the top-ranked MMA star, but her casting is more than a stunt. With her watch-your-step demeanor and smoky gaze, Carano has real presence. The movie is packed with resourceful actors (Michael Douglas as a shadowy CIA type, Michael Fassbender as a suave MI6 agent, Ewan McGregor as a conniving security contractor), so she doesn't have to carry every scene. While she can't out-act Angelina Jolie, Carano definitely looks comfortable onscreen. And she's a lot more credible kicking butt. In "Haywire" she has a vehicle nicely suited to her specialized but nevertheless real talents.
The fight scenes are everything in a movie like this, and they are staged with the tough, bone-crunching physicality that John McTiernan brought to "Die Hard." The actors do their own stunts, mostly in long shots, and nothing happens that is physically impossible.
Doing his own cinematography under his cameraman alias Peter Andrews, Soderbergh puts us right in the thick of the action. David Holmes' jazz-combo score, whose bass registers stress the tension of anxious scenes, drops away so we can hear every grunt, thud and scuffle. I counted at least seven "Whoa, I can't believe I just saw that" moments during Carano's room-wrecking hand-to-hand battle with Fassbender. Among them was a first, a coffee table that did not fall to splinters when a body crashed into it. Nice touch.
With screenwriter Lem Dobbs (his collaborator on the superb revenge flick "The Limey"), Soderbergh offers a teasing, clever take on violent B movies made for 19-year-olds. It's artisan trash, delivering the action-thriller goods, but on its own intelligent terms. There's a lot to watch and even a bit to contemplate; the slippery time-skipping chronology requires a bit of cognitive effort, then repays it in full.
The characters are richer and situated in relationships closer to real life than simplistic movie scenes. And the conventions of the genre -- spoon-feeding exposition to the audience, fancy getaway driving -- are given their due and roundly spoofed at the same time. Capable people worked on this and did not squander their talent.