Hemingway might have called Haywire clean and hard and true — true in the sense of a bullet finding its home. You’ve seen the story before, but it moves, and director Steven Soderbergh approaches it as another one of his experiments in the mainstream; every shot is compelling without calling attention to itself. In a simple dialogue scene, we follow the motion of the heroine, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), as she puts things on shelves — the camera stays on her at the top shelf, then dips with her to the middle shelf, then down to the bottom shelf. That sticks in my head, though the dialogue doesn’t. It’s just as well. Mallory is a covert-op agent who’s been double-crossed. Many of the men she meets will try to kill her. That’s really the gist of the film, and Soderbergh boils it down to its essence.

A mixed martial-arts fighter, Carano makes her acting debut in Haywire. As he did with former porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh uses Carano as a found object, a non-actress who has, as Liam Neeson put it in Taken, a very particular set of skills. These women carry themselves differently from most women; their bodies speak eloquently of physical experience (and excess) beyond the rest of us. Carano is small but not tiny (five-foot-eight), muscular but not beefy, and she uses her taller adversaries’ weight and height against them, jumping up onto their backs and squeezing their throats hard. The men topple like trees, one by one. With standard gun-toting cops she doesn’t have to kill, Mallory is somewhat gentler — just a punch or two, and they topple nicely. (This is the movie that should have been called The Iron Lady.)

Soderbergh has built an entire movie around this woman and her ability to get into (and win) vicious fights without a lot of cheating in the editing bay. The battles play out in long shot, and David Holmes’ groovy retro score shuts the hell up once the fists start flying, so we can hear the realistic pounding. The hits sound and look painful — some of them couldn’t have been faked, and I felt sorry for such actors as Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Ewan McGregor, who probably put in a few weeks of training for their confrontations with Carano but clearly aren’t in her league. Again, it’s the physical eloquence: the men act their moves, sometimes passably; Carano isn’t acting. Unfortunately, that extends to her non-fighting scenes. Carano speaks in a hard flat voice; her eyes don’t take the light, and every so often her discomfort shows. The actors, aside from a panicky dude (Michael Angarano) Mallory sort of kidnaps, compensate by lowering their energy level around her. When Ewan McGregor, say, gets to act opposite Michael Douglas instead of Carano, his relief is palpable — he can now play a scene.

But then the movie isn’t primarily about acting, is it? I suppose Haywire is, on paper, no different from many Asian martial-arts films, or even a few American ones (like, say, the ’90s filmography of Cynthia Rothrock), that put a shaky actress but unquestionable fighting master front and center. But Soderbergh takes the opportunity to write a trim visual essay on attack and retreat. Going back to that shelf scene: the important thing isn’t the exposition but the sense we get that Mallory yearns for a peaceful, orderly place to call home. She’s an expert in her field, and she doesn’t necessarily want to leave it — she’s just tired of dealing with corrupt men. Aside from a brief exchange between McGregor and Fassbender (“I’ve never done a woman before.” “Don’t think of her as a woman; that would be a mistake”), the movie treats a killer woman as a complete non-issue and non-novelty, and thankfully we don’t get the false sense that she does what she does out of some shamefully unfeminine flaw. She isn’t rebelling against or trying to impress Daddy; indeed, Daddy (Bill Paxton) is a military-thriller writer who seems a bit awed by her. Of course, this also means Mallory has no shading, and no flaws at all aside from perhaps trusting the wrong people, but the film moves so ruthlessly and economically that it doesn’t matter much. It’s the sort of action-thriller that’s been done a billion times, but its severe, almost austere sense of purpose sets it apart.

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