There's a point in Haywire when the film's protagonist, ex-Marine Mallory Kane (Gina Carano), gone rogue from her job as hired muscle for a private government subcontractor, takes a fall while scaling down a drainpipe and hits the ground with a crunch that knocks the wind out of you.
It's a short drop, but that landing hurts. As cartoonish live-action and photorealistic cartoons reign at the multiplex, all but obsoleting the laws of gravity, Haywire puts the impact back into screen violence, brings it back to earth.
Haywire's plot is boilerplate triple-cross, cloak-and-dagger stuff, written in pulpy blank verse by The Limey screenwriter Lem Dobbs, picking up with his old collaborator, director Steven Soderbergh, who evinces a second-sense ability to frame every shot for maximal effect. Mallory is introduced evading her old employer's attempt to corral her, in a scene that establishes the film's tendency to ambush assault. After half-kidnapping a teenage escape driver, she flashes back to the hectic last week that has put her on the lam: two jobs that shuttled her between Barcelona and Dublin and ended in a setup.
Mallory looks for answers from her boss and former lover, Kenneth, played by Ewan McGregor; the rest of his network is played by famous faces, including shadowy operative Antonio Banderas; Channing Tatum as Mallory's sometimes partner, Aaron; Michael Douglas as Kenneth's liaison to Washington; and Michael Fassbender as a freelance agent, Paul, with whom Mallory is reluctantly partnered. Haywire is, however, very much a vehicle for Carano, the MMA fighter and former American Gladiator regular, now appearing in her first film. The casting is more than a stunt, for Haywire makes full use of Carano's particular physical capabilities (something decidedly not true of porn star Sasha Grey's casting in Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience). There are several long, unbroken shots of Carano hustling along city streets in foot chases and bounding across rooftops like a muscular Irma Vep and, of course, there are fights. Soderbergh makes ingenious use of confined spaces — corridors, hotel rooms, the narrow aisle of a boxcar diner — with combatants using walls for leverage and as ready bludgeons. The music of fist on face, the punting kicks, all have a rib-cracking resonance that recalls the days when Phil Karlson (Walking Tall) was directing actioners.
Carano is also photogenic: The symmetry of her sharp features has survived her fighting days, though she carries a scar on her jawline as a souvenir. This is important because Haywire is, after a fashion, a slapstick-violent, mercenary sex comedy, with Mallory romantically involved, however fleetingly, with each of her major opponents in turn: In addition to her history with Kenneth, she has an on-the-job FWB relationship with Aaron, while she's attached to Paul as a decoy date. ("MI6 wants me to be eye candy?" she asks, incredulous.) The combat duets don't have the weight of moral outrage behind Karlson's punch, but, as Soderbergh jauntily outlines the combatant's business/pleasure interactions, each fight takes on an individual chemistry, as any couple does. With Aaron, it's a brutal spat. The prelude to their confrontation — him hung-over, Mallory marked up — reads like an abusive boyfriend coming to collect his woman, an assumption that Soderbergh quickly upends. Mallory's outing with Paul is a parody of a swank first date, complete with a consummation in which he gets more than he bargained for. (The only bit that doesn't quite register is Mallory impersonally dispatching two Irish Gardaí officers, precisely because it's impersonal.)
Where faux-empowering The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo confines sexual power play to the old rape-revenge matrix, Haywire is a real war-of-the-sexes tournament, briskly paced with a tickling sense of black humor. (One encounter concludes with a smothering thigh lock that leaves its victim with a priceless sated and insensate expression before his black widow goodnight kiss.) In contrast to Rooney Mara's overkill Hot Topic pout, Carano can play dom femme and express vulnerability, backed up by her physique.
How'd she get so tough? Bill Paxton shows up as Mallory's ex-leatherneck father, teasing the pop-psych explanation that she has never found somebody who can measure up to Daddy — but Daddy's expression when witnessing Mallory at work shows he knows he has been surpassed. Mallory might find her culprit, but she doesn't find anyone on her level.