Despite Brad Bird's tremendous visual vocabulary and tense direction, Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol suffered from a serious design flaw. Set in the present day, it was about an American man chasing after a Russian who had nuclear launch codes in his briefcase, a fusty plot ripped straight out of the 1960s and dragged, protesting, through every decade between then and now. Many critics have complained at length—usually when reviewing the Bond or Bourne films—about the growing pains of spy thrillers in the post–Cold War age of corporate globalism, but seldom has that gap between old school and new been as glaringly obvious as last month's Ghost Protocol and this month's release of Steven Soderbergh's Haywire.
Whereas Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt is disturbingly competent, Haywire's protagonist, Mallory Kane (Gina Carano, a real-life mixed martial arts star) is "merely" at the outer edges of human physical achievement. We see her preparing for her jobs, cleaning her guns, taking a second to get her brain in the right place before staging a raid. Not all of her punches and kicks land with a solid thud. But her body is still a perfect, deadly weapon, finding purchase to gain leverage over larger, more muscular opponents.
And unlike Hunt, Kane lives and works in ethically murky territory. She's employed by a firm that subcontracts jobs—assassinations, kidnappings, that sort of thing—from the US government. Early in Haywire, we see Kane's boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor, with what appears to be a greasy hedgehog sitting atop his shaven head), haggling with a government agent (a bemused Michael Douglas, keeping it light) over a price for Kane's job. She's the best Kenneth's got, and everyone knows it.
So, naturally, she has to die. After running around Barcelona and Dublin for a bit, Kane is framed and disavowed, marked for assassination and hunted like a wounded animal. Soderbergh keeps Haywire bouncing between genres—spy, action, intrigue, revenge—at a rapid clip, punctuated with just enough exposition to grease the engine of kick-assery without murdering the forward momentum of the film.
You're not getting Soderbergh at his wittiest here—it's a far cry from Ocean's Eleven—and the movie isn't built on experimentation like The Limey or Out of Sight. Instead, it's a rock-solid genre movie, stuffed with all the clichéd dialogue and cheap action thrills you expect. (The fighting is especially impressive: mean, dirty, and lightning fast.)
Carano is obviously not a natural born actor. When called upon to emote, she generally bites her lip, and whole sentences occasionally fall, stillborn, out of her mouth. But she attacks acting the way she fights: instinctually and with a lot of passion. She's on the same acting scale as Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Sylvester Stallone, only further up on the believable human end. She'll never win an Oscar, but she could become a decent Bruce Willis–type action star in three good movies or less.
And Soderbergh packs the rest of the film with enough whizbang to make up for his lead's occasional lack of presence. The soundtrack is an absurdly good stew of warm jazz, funky exploitation chicka-wow-wow guitar licks, and chilly electronic beats. And there's always something surprising or gorgeous to look at: Soderbergh gives us a pedestrian's-eye view of Europe that keeps the cities charming and approachable, and an extended fight sequence set during a gradually brightening New Mexico dawn is breathtaking. As with all of these types of actioners, the door is left wide open for a Haywire sequel; it's one of those rare movie experiences when you come away hoping the actor has punched her way into a franchise.