41 REV Haywire Gina Carano H
Claudette Barius/Five Continent Imports LLC

Gina Carano shoots unerringly and employs devastating fighting skills.

Gina Carano kicks ass in Steven Soderbergh's action lark.

Imagine an entire action  film dedicated to the proposition that every fight possesses the intensity of the classic Sean Connery-Robert Shaw to-the-death scrap in From Russia With Love and you'll know what Haywire is all about. With all the feel of a vacation from more high-minded and ambitious projects, Steven Soderbergh celebrates making his 25th feature film within 22 years with a kick-ass international action romp toplining mixed martial arts star Gina Carano as a covert operative who proceeds to whup a succession of macho leading men and assorted anonymous foes; she's Pepper to Angelina's Salt. World-premiered as a surprise sneak preview at Hollywood's AFI Film Festival, this Relativity release should enjoy a solid commercial career with action-seeking male and female audiences upon its Jan. 20 release.

A handsome, dark-haired hard body who wears an evening dress as easily as she does a hoodie, Carano exudes the sort of self-confidence and physical wherewithal that leaves no doubt she can prevail in any situation. This is essential because the film rides upon one's certainty that her character, Mallory Kane, an international troubleshooter assigned to off-the-books missions, can take out virtually any guy in mano a mano combat. Soderbergh shoots her half-a-dozen or so fight scenes without doubles or cheat editing, emphasizing his star's abilities to the extent that the semblance and extremity of the combat's reality becomes the film's entire raison d'etre.

In this, Haywire entirely and winningly succeeds. Soderbergh and scenarist Lem Dobbs, who previously wrote Kafka and The Limey for the director, seem refreshingly frank about what the script, which makes no attempt to assert its plausibility or realism, is -- a simple, workable framework for melees and mayhem.

Haywire gets right down to business in the opening scene, a very rough tussle between Mallory and an agent (Channing Tatum). We then meet Mallory's point man (Ewan McGregor, with a very dorky haircut), the dashing agent Paul (Michael Fassbender, in glamour-boy mode), Mallory's father (a very good Bill Paxton) and her top superiors played by a smooth Michael Douglas and a shadowy Antonio Banderas.

The fine use of locations, elegantly mobile shooting style and hair-trigger editing are all in line with what one expects from Soderbergh. But here the generally larky but serious-when-it-needs-to-be tone is set by the wildly diverse musical contributions of David Holmes, whose film score-sampling background and blues-and-jazz techno orientation yield many different flavors to occasionally jarring but overall buoyant effect.

As solid as all the male actors are, in the end the show belongs to Soderbergh, who took a risk with a largely untested leading lady, and Carano, whose shoulders, and everything else, prove plenty strong enough to carry the film. The director shrewdly determined what she could and perhaps couldn't do, and she delivered with a turn that makes other actresses who have attempted such roles, no matter how toned and buff they became, look like pretenders.

Release date Jan. 20 (Relativity Media)
Cast Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum
Director Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter Lem Dobbs
Rated R, 91 minutes