“Haywire” is a raw, sometimes thrilling, action picture with smarts. And as impressive as MMA champion Gina Carano is in delivering punches, it is her surprising acting turn that helps makes the outlandish storyline credible. Certainly this can be attributed to the steady direction by Steven Soderbergh with efficient writing by Lem Dobbs, who worked with Soderbergh on the fantastic “The Limey” in 1999. With the probable critical and commercial success of “Haywire,” Carano is well on her way to becoming a bankable action star.

The shapely and dangerous Mallory (Carano) doesn’t want to be eye candy. She explains this to her shifty employer and sometimes lover Kenneth (Ewan McGregor). He spouts back that she won’t be the “candy,” rather, she’d be “the eye.” Mallory has just returned from a high energy assignment in Barcelona, and Kenneth wants her to do a job in Dublin, Ireland, requiring her to play another operative’s wife. Mallory is more accustomed to blue jeans over cocktail dresses, and she prefers a weapon instead of a designer handbag. A secret agent for hire, she’s a former Marine whose compensation for work is more the adrenaline rush from the action than the money she receives.

Taking the easy mission in Dublin proves to be a bad idea. Mallory goes on the run. She’s coming for Kenneth who may have set her up. Part revenge tale, part espionage yarn, “Haywire” is less concerned with plot than it is in showcasing its muscle-bound Muay Thai trained star. But Carano is more than just a pretty face and intimating body, she makes us believe she’s could be a secret agent/mercenary capable of kicking much butt while ferreting out the dark forces that threaten her.

The talented combination of Soderbergh/Dobbs makes smart use of new-comer Carano, whose acting abilities certainly do not, at this point, match her fighting skills. The lean narrative is beefed up by supporting performances only Soderbergh could leverage. Heading the crowd is Michael Douglas, who plays a governmental agent reminiscent in a way to his work with Soderbergh in the Oscar winning “Traffic.” Just hearing Douglas’ voice is enough to give any story a lift, but here his presence is significant bringing definition to the story whose chief focus is action. No performance is wasted by the Dobbs’ script, even Channing Tatum gets screen time to transform from thug to something else. The normally likable Ewan McGregor gets to play a bit of a slime, but the script keeps us guessing a bit right up to the ambiguous conclusion.

When McGregor, playing deal maker Kenneth, explains the details of an assignment to another operative (played by none-other-than Michael Fassbender), he coldly tells him that the motivation for the job is money, it is always money, he explains. And that explains a lot about the motivations of everyone in “Haywire.” For example, Antonio Banderas gets a subtle but juicy role as another shadowy agent. When Mallory asks him about whether he likes his job, he responds that he likes having his job better than he likes someone else having it. Ultimately, everyone in the film has an angle and it boils down to cash and who’s paying.

If things work out, Carano will become a great big action superstar, and “Haywire” is an extremely auspicious debut.

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