Into the cinematic dead zone of January comes Haywire to kick off the new movie year on a sexy action high. I shouldn't be surprised, since Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar-winning director of Traffic, is the prankster behind the camera. This is Soderbergh working lean and mean outside the mainstream comforts of the Ocean's franchise. Shooting digitally on the 4K Red One camera, Soderbergh gives Haywire B-movie oomph without sacrificing his fluid elegance. Plus, there's no keeping your eyes off his star attraction. She's Gina Carano, 29, the face of women's mixed martial arts and just the five-foot-eight cage fighter you need to beat the crap out of male movie stars, such as Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum.
OK, Carano's on-camera experience has been limited to crushing the competition on NBC's American Gladiators. But she more than holds her own with the big boys, including evil suits played by Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas. Did I mention that Haywire is a spy thriller? It is, and the nonstop dazzle and momentum are boosted by frisky camerawork and editing by Soderbergh under the aliases of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard (don't ask).
Carano plays Mallory Kane, a covert-ops specialist who finds her shady government bosses are out to whack her. Dumb move. This Muay Thai kickboxer and weapons expert doesn't go down easy, not even when her chief contact, Kenneth (McGregor, thoroughly enjoying his slide into slimeball villainy), pulls out all the stops.
Lem Dobbs (The Limey, Kafka) sparks his script with droll wit, but I wouldn't bother much with the plot details. As the scene shifts across the globe, propelled by a vibrant David Holmes score, Mallory is the only guide we need. Carano is poetry in kickass motion, as she and ex-lover Aaron (Tatum) duke it out in a rundown diner. This leads to a flashback of Mallory and Aaron teaming up in Barcelona to rescue a Chinese journalist. Just when you think Soderbergh can't top himself for pyrotechnics, Mallory – decked out in heels and designer wear – tangles with Paul (Fassbender, oozing subversive charm), a partner she's meant to trust. Ha! The two destroy a posh Dublin hotel room, and Soderbergh can't contain his joy. Why should he? And why should we? As foxy Mallory takes on her enemies in the beach house she shares with her father (Bill Paxton), Haywire comes close to achieving Soderbergh's goal of creating "a Pam Grier movie made by Alfred Hitchcock."