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Haywire (2012)

Action/Adventure Rated R

If only all action larks had a director of Steven Soderbergh’s caliber behind them.

As in The Limey, which was also written by Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh takes a genre exercise and puts it through his signature formalistic blender. The ingredients here are very familiar – a wrongfully accused espionage agent goes on the run – but they’ve been chopped, diced and rearranged in deliciously inventive ways.

Consider an early hostage rescue, in which a covert team has only a few minutes to burst into a Barcelona safe house, pluck a hostage from his captors and escape unscathed. Choreographed to Soderberghian jazz, the sequence is free of dialogue but otherwise employs every trick in the book: slow motion, freeze frames, black and white and more. It’s an impressive hostage rescue; it’s a more impressive filmmaking feat.

Haywire also emphasizes what is one of Soderbergh’s less-discussed talents: his eye as a casting director. Here, he’s assembled Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas as various spies and traitors. A weaselly McGregor and steely Fassbender are especially good, while the underrated Tatum gets some sly moments as a black-ops himbo.

Of course, Soderbergh’s most important casting decision was putting former mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano in the lead role. It’s an alarming physical performance. Carano moves swiftly, with clear purpose, saving all her energy for the brutal fight scenes that frequently erupt. Even her flat line delivery comes across as an attempt to conserve power. As for the throwdowns themselves, they’re less won by knockout punches than sheer endurance. When Carano gets a good grip on one of her victims, it’s impossible to peel her off; she’s like lethal duct tape.

Yes, all of these victims are male, so there is a dissertation on female empowerment waiting to be written here. Yet Haywire – lithe, agile and merciless – proceeds as if such considerations are beside the point. Carano is such a force that you never really think of her adventure as a bid for equality. It’s clear from her first takedown that she’s superior.