Gina Carano, who plays government gun-for-hire Mallory Kane in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, doesn't look like a movie star. The mixed martial-arts champion has a lopsided, mildly fleshy face that's engrossing in a way her high-cheekboned peers can’t match; she looks as if she's gone a few rounds. Whether she's brawling with a man twice her size or racing across Dublin rooftops, she adapts to her environment without hesitation: a fist, a knee, a ceramic knickknack, even a loose shoulder strap becomes a weapon just long enough to serve her purposes, so that, like her opponents, you never know where the next blow will come from.
That's true of the prismatic script by Lem Dobbs (The Limey), as well, which juggles locations and time frames as it unravels an ever-expanding conspiracy to frame Mallory for murder. The net ensnares a fellow operative (Channing Tatum), a British spook (Michael Fassbender), her boss (Ewan McGregor) and a pair of government higher-ups (Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas), as well as her father (Bill Paxton), an ex-Marine novelist, but the tangled intrigue is more busy than it is complex.
Carano's affectless line readings cripple the sense of betrayal, and Soderbergh's digital cinematography is uncharacteristically murky, especially in the movie's many low-light confrontations. The fight scenes are brutally satisfying, filmed in longish takes and stripped of the audio sweetening that normally makes every punch sound like a car crash. But when the blows stop landing, the stakes vanish.