Haywire

In theaters.

No one slums with so much style as director Steven Soderbergh. The Ocean’s movies, for example, are far more aesthetically polished than any star-studded trifle really needs to be, but that, of course, is part of what makes them so charming. In fact, I secretly prefer frivolous Soderbergh to serious Soderbergh. His sleek manner can come across as cold when he’s dealing with some substance, but it’s just cool everywhere else.

Haywire, his latest, isn’t comedic like Ocean’s or sexy like Out of Sight (my personal favorite)—and it’s not on their level—but it’s fun all the same and just as impeccably put together as the man’s films always are. Plus, the conceit is great: Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs set out to make a vehicle for mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano by catering to her strengths (looking tough, kicking the snot out of people) and underplaying her weaknesses (emoting, delivering extensive dialogue, maybe acting in general). Transcendent it’s not, but as tight, hard-boiled B-movies go, it’s terrific.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a former marine turned private black ops agent. Betrayed during a mission—by her colleagues? her boss?—she has to extricate herself from one dangerous predicament after another, find out who’s responsible for the treachery, and, of course, seek her revenge.

That’s it. After all, it’s just an excuse for expertly rendered fight scenes and an old-fashioned, strong-and-silent-type hero, and Carano is well suited for the endeavor. Dobbs wisely gives her a taciturn, no-nonsense character, emotions tightly in check, and she effectively embodies that with flat delivery and a stony gaze. And, of course, she knows her way around Mallory’s potent use of her body as a weapon. In a funny way, Haywire is like an old Fred Astaire movie, with fight scenes instead of dance numbers. It would have been criminal to obscure Astaire’s grace with choppy cuts or close-ups, and Soderbergh clearly has a similar philosophy when it comes to Carano’s own physical prowess. Haywire shows every movement, even cutting all music and extraneous noise from the soundtrack in those key scenes, the better to highlight its star’s greatest strength.

The whole movie is like that: taut and trim, with Soderbergh’s trademark slippery timeline and a typically deep cast: here including Ewan McGregor as Mallory’s craven boss, Channing Tatum as her none-too-bright colleague, Bill Paxton as her devoted father, Michael Douglas as a cunning government bureaucrat, Antonio Banderas as a shady contact, and—best of all—Michael Fassbender as a British agent with the skills to match Mallory. To some extent, the experienced actors help Carano sketch her character. Paxton fills in a close father-daughter relationship, grounded in deep mutual respect, and subtly suggests that while Mr. Kane doesn’t worry overmuch about his girl’s survival skills, her mental health and happiness may be of some concern. McGregor delivers a hilariously weaselly performance, making Mallory look all the more like a straight shooter by contrast. And Fassbender—well, he shows us not to underestimate Mallory, no matter what she might look like in a slinky black dress and heels.

The best sequence comes about a third of the way through the movie—a premature climax, all things considered—but even after that memorable brawl, Soderbergh keeps the energy up, staging a desperate foot pursuit, an off-kilter car chase, and a creepy calling-from-inside-the-house scenario with perfectly modulated tension. If he weren’t so busy being a serious, acclaimed director who’s always threatening to retire, Soderbergh would have a real future in this kind of pulp.