Fight Scenes go ‘Haywire’ in Steven Soderbergh’s new film

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Mallory Kane doesn’t care about your feelings. Played by Gina Carano, she is a black ops super soldier (whatever that is, neither director Steven Soderbergh nor I really care) privately contracted by Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) with whom she shares a fraught, but vague, personal history. She is delegated to free a hostage in Barcelona but is afterward sent to Dublin to team up with Paul (Michael Fassbender), where she will pretend to be his wife in another ambiguous assignment. But, of course, while these three are making plans, somebody up there is laughing, because things go “Haywire” in Soderbergh’s strongest film in years.

Since the release of the two-part epic “Che” in 2008, Soderbergh, traverser of mainstream and indie territories alike, has directed smaller, personal films like “The Girlfriend Experience,” the brutally underrated “The Informant!” and last year’s pandemic drama “Contagion,” which proved he has no qualms about killing off top-billers. Be surprised in “Haywire” when a certain Leading Man of 2011 is shot point-blank in the head within minutes of his screen-time.

Much of the film is told in flashback by Mallory, now gone rogue in Upstate New York, to a civilian (Michael Angarano) whose car she jacks. These scenes feature some of the film’s best moments of black comedy because the film never takes itself too seriously. A white-knuckle car chase, for instance, is interrupted by a deer catapulted through a windshield.

“Haywire” boasts exquisitely choreographed action scenes in which Carano, a former “American Gladiator” and martial artist, appears to do all her own stunts. As the savvy cinephile might expect from a director like Soderbergh, who nimbly ushers accessible genre paradigms into the arthouse, the fight scenes have no music of any kind, scored only by the swift sounds of punches and colliding bodies.

Even more to the delight of minimalists, these moments often occur in long, uninterrupted takes. It’s a testament to Soderbergh’s fastidious direction that scenes feel contained and highly organized, like a ballet, even when they are totally unhinged.

In its softer, character-driven moments, “Haywire” maintains its jittery energy, thanks in part to David Holmes’s trippy, trancey jazz score. This is as much an action film, and an anti-action film, as last year’s “Drive,” and like that movie by Nicolas Winding Refn, Soderbergh’s is about detachment and disconnect, couching its existential nihilism in ultra-cool, violent set pieces.

Carano is no Meryl Streep (yay!), but as Mallory, she is a muscly ball of quiet fury that slowly unravels behind her placid face. And her character isn’t totally indefatigable. In fight scenes, it takes a while for Mallory to get her footing, allowing for some beastly scenes of female abuse — as when beef jerky Channing Tatum splashes a hot cup of coffee in her face and slams her on a table — but she always comes out on top, so to speak. As McGregor’s character tells partner-in-crime Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas in one of many cameos that include Michael Douglas and Mathieu Kassovitz), “Don’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake.”

Refreshingly, Lem Dobbs’s screenplay has no interest in plausibility or hefty exposition, mocking genre pictures that explain away the convoluted physics of their plot. When it is finally revealed why Kenneth betrays Mallory, the explanation is brief and confounding. As in the Coen Brothers’ 2008 “Burn After Reading,” Soderbergh understands the absurdity of genre movies’ compulsion toward logic.

Following the mass ejaculation of excellent, Oscar-baiting indies in the late fall and winter, it is a prickly task for the filmgoer to navigate the dross of January’s multiplex afterbirth. “Haywire” is the first must-see film of the year.