Michael Fassbender and Gina Carano stars in "Haywire." (Claudette Barius / Relativity…)
Director Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire," starring the marvelous mixed martial arts mastery of Gina Carano, makes one thing perfectly clear: Bad things happen in Barcelona. And if you're in the assassination and espionage game, which Carano's Mallory Kane is, you just might find yourself on the wrong end of a gun. Or, in Mallory's case, relentless kicks and flying fists.
Less a tightly plotted action film than an excuse to showcase Carano's substantial fighting skills, "Haywire" doesn't measure up to the best of the director's work — like, say, his Oscar-winning drug drama, "Traffic." But watching Carano kick, spin, flip, choke, crack and crush the fiercest of foes — mostly men about twice her size — is thoroughly entertaining, highly amusing and frankly somewhat awe-inspiring. Fortunately she doesn't bruise easily.
The plot is indeed anchored to what went down in Barcelona. The narrative uses a "Usual Suspects" approach, teasing the ending at the beginning, then piecing the past together scene by scene.
Sometimes the story unfolds in a set piece — like the all-important Barcelona gig that involved a high-stakes rescue and a romantic interlude, or the trip to Dublin that brings Michael Fassbender into the picture as Paul, Mallory's partner for a night of cocktails and killing. Other times it unfolds as she lays it out to the kid (Michael Angarano) whose car and whose company she's hijacked while trying to elude the bad guys.
Mallory tells him that his job will be to explain what really happened. Maybe we could get his number.
The film also stars Channing Tatum, who, like Fassbender, is killer eye candy — as in lethal and good looking. His Aaron is the down-home charmer to Paul's tuxedoed Bond type. Kenneth, a tightly shorn and slightly sleazy Ewan McGregor, is the puppet-master pulling the strings at the contract-killing company where Mallory is suddenly on the outs.
The major clients are Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) and the government's Coblenz (Michael Douglas), also eye candy but of the aging gracefully sort; their loyalties more ambiguous. Motives are many but muddy — the important thing to remember is that Mallory must be eliminated. That single fact drives everything.
Screenwriter Lem Dobbs has done better (the sci-fi mystery "Dark City") and worse (the Hollywood ride-along "The Hard Way"), with "Haywire" somewhere in the middle — a few intriguing threads amid a bundle of loose ends. It's his most recent collaboration with Soderbergh, echoing some of the get-the-bad-guy-at-all-costs themes of their better work, "Kafka" and "The Limey," which basically bookended the '90s. But it's not in the same league as the director's more accomplished films: last year's "Contagion," for example.
The humor, however, is classic Soderbergh — dry, bone dry, 0% humidity dry. Mallory's plight is close to parody as the director plays with the espionage genre this time out (I can't wait till he gets around to horror). Unfortunately, "Haywire" never quite gels into anything tense, and this is theoretically a thriller.
More in the vein of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," but not as sexy or as clever, it might have benefited from a little of the cerebral chill that so nicely infected "Contagion" and a dash more of the smart sardonic side the filmmaker brought to "The Informant!" or the best of his "Ocean's Eleven" series.
The deficits are somewhat offset by the filmmaker's sheer technical wizardry. Even Soderbergh's worst work (and "Haywire" isn't that) cleans up nicely with such serious attention paid to lighting, framing, casting, costumes, colors, sets; and, per usual, with the director handling the cinematography too under the name Peter Andrews.
There is a sense within all the haywire high jinks that Carano might be able to do just fine with a role that didn't rest so heavily on fighting (though stunt coordinator R.A. Rondell proved a genius in choreographing all those tumbling rumbles). Her athleticism gives her movement a kind of force that translates powerfully on screen — people do seem inclined to get out of her way even when she's not angry.
There are glimpses as well of an active interior life behind that flirty smile. But a fighting Mallory was her mission in "Haywire," and in that it's hard to imagine that anyone could beat her.