Watching Gina Carano, as freelance secret agent Mallory Kane, strangle a man with her upper thighs is just one of many pleasures to be found in "Haywire," Steven Soderbergh's coolly brutal and slyly funny return to the action genre. Carano and her partner appear to be doing, well, something else -- but let's just say that he never gets to enjoy the afterglow.
Carano, a mixed martial arts fighter in one of her first acting roles, puts some major muscle into Mallory, a former Marine turned mercenary. With her broad shoulders and powerful legs, she pulls off the kind of stunts that a willowy Kate Beckinsale or Angelina Jolie never could: One baddie watches in amazement (as do we) as Mallory floats toward the ceiling and magically pins him to a wall; another guy she simply mows down with the velocity of a runaway Hummer. "Don't think of her as a woman," one character warns. "That would be a mistake."
The plot concerns a botched rescue operation spearheaded by Mallory's former employer, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor); a Spanish kingpin of some sort (Antonio Banderas, winking throughout), and a government bureaucrat named Coblenz (a droll Michael Douglas). But it's mostly an excuse to watch Carano go mano-a-mano against male aggressors like her former cohort Aaron (Channing Tatum) and the handsome but untrustworthy Paul (Michael Fassbender). Soderbergh's long takes make these close-combat scenes feel breathtakingly real, with head cracks so visceral you'll wince in sympathy.
You may be asking: Can Carano act? Not yet -- she's more comfortable moving than talking. Nevertheless, she has an authentic tomboy persona that most action heroines lack. When told to gussy up for a fancy party (as female movie spies must), Mallory objects: "I don't wear the dress." You don't doubt it.
PLOT A freelance secret agent finds herself in danger after a botched rescue operation. RATING R (violence, language)
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE Mixed martial-arts star Carano puts major muscle, if minor acting ability, into this enjoyable action flick.
Keeping it real by doing the fight thing
In "Haywire," Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh reimagines the spy genre within the confines of physical realism. Rather than employ technology that audiences have grown accustomed to -- stunt doubles, quick film cuts, wire work -- Soderbergh opted to approach the genre with a real-life fighter (mixed-martial-arts champ Gina Carano) as his lead.
"I really wanted to make a spy movie that wasn't a fantasy, in which the scale of it was very human," said Soderbergh. "Then I saw Gina on TV, and I thought, 'She is [James] Bond,' just in a different context."
With little more than that idea in his head, Soderbergh first arranged to meet Carano in summer 2009, one week after Carano lost her first mixed-martial-arts fight. Sporting a black eye and a downtrodden attitude, Carano reluctantly picked up Soderbergh from a train station in San Diego, where she was living.
"I didn't want to talk to anybody, see anybody," said Carano, who was surprised when their meeting turned into a four-hour lunch. "We had this normal conversation. He was feeling me out. He wanted to know what kind of person I am. And I didn't have any preconceived notions of him because I didn't really know what a director really was."
-- Los Angeles Times