Starring: Gina Carano, Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Michael Fassbender, .500Antonio Banderas
Rated: R, for some violence
Runtime: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Bottom line: A new woman warrior is born
How about this for strange casting? "Haywire" features Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton.
Yet who plays the lead? Mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, whose biggest acting credit until now was performing as Crush on the "American Gladiator" series.
Carano plays Mallory Kane, a former Marine who now pulls espionage jobs for a private contractor named Kenneth (McGregor), whose firm is often hired by government agencies. In this case, Kenneth contracts with a U.S. intelligence agent named Coblenz (Douglas) and his Spanish counterpart, Rodrigo (Banderas).
Kenneth assigns Mallory, Aaron (Tatum) and two other agents to rescue a man named Jiang (Anthony Brandon Wong), who is being held hostage in Barcelona.
Things go sour between Mallory and some of her colleagues, and we have a rogue-spy-on-the-run story that takes us to Dublin, upstate New York, Mexico and elsewhere.
That's a familiar scenario for a spy movie, but director Steven Soderbergh loves to experiment at the same time he entertains. The experiment here is whether a female MMA fighter can carry a movie and be believable when fighting trained male agents.
Carano might be the only woman in the world who could play this role. She is beautiful enough to be a model, but watch any of her MMA clips and you'll discover that she is genuinely one tough chick. With her background, Carano is, dare I say it, more credible in the fight sequences than Angelina Jolie in "Salt."
Jolie is in a completely different stratosphere when it comes to acting, of course, but Soderbergh pulls a surprisingly good performance out of Carano. First, he and screenwriter Lem Dobbs don't ask her to do too much. There are no long monologues or weepy death scenes, which surely would have exposed Carano's limitations.
She glowers her way through much of the movie, showing an intensity that comes naturally for someone who beats people up for a living. Soderbergh has extensive experience working with first-time and nonprofessional actors, though, so when real acting is required, he pulls it out of her.
And by casting Carano, Soderbergh gave himself a great stunt woman and real martial artist, which opened up a world of options for the film's style.
Soderbergh and Dobbs worked together years ago on, arguably, Soderbergh's best movie, "The Limey." "Haywire" is a companion piece to "The Limey," but in a very loose way.
Both are revenge movies, and Dobbs' style is apparent in the settings, in the way the action scenes patiently crescendo, and in the way key moments of character development occur in the midst of intense action.
However, "Haywire" is in a different genre. The film is one part spy movie — using the early Bond film, "From Russia With Love," and the Michael Caine thriller "Funeral in Berlin" as templates — and one part martial arts film.
Most of the fight scenes are done in classic martial arts style. The movie relies on none of the gadgets synonymous with the Bond franchise. Technology plays an even smaller role here than it does in "The Bourne Identity."
Not that "Haywire" is a Bourne retread. Mallory, like Bourne, survives on her wits, training and hand-to-hand combat skills. But this movie does not look like a Bourne movie.
Soderbergh avoids the shaky handheld camera work and disorienting editing typical of the Bourne franchise and too many action movies these days.
Instead, the fight scenes are reminiscent of Jackie Chan's best work, in which the camera usually sits still so we can actually watch the performers at work. It's refreshing to see a director trust his actors this way, and he could only do that with Carano playing the lead.
Carano apparently plans to return to MMA, which is a shame for movie fans. We don't have many actresses who can do all that she can while looking as she does. She is a rare commodity whom I'd like to see in more movies.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.