Gina Carano has a face that can hold a Hollywood close-up and a fist that can hold your nose until it comes clean off.
And that’s cool.
Steven Soderbergh cast this mixed martial arts star/model in “Haywire” and surrounded her with experienced actors because he wanted to see an action movie starring a woman who could credibly beat the living daylights out of legions of guys who got in her way. No “Bourne” or “Bond” quick cuts and shaky cameras to hide the speed of the punches, the athleticism of the brawlers.
This too, is cool.
Carano holds her own in this sauntering, multicity film that’s slyly funny at times as various men – Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender – in the spy game underestimate agent Mallory Kane (Carano). Or don’t underestimate her.
Kane, working as a private contractor for Kenneth (McGregor), has been set up. She’s trying to figure out who betrayed her. Was it Kenneth? The government guy, Coblenz (Michael Douglas), who uses Kenneth’s team? Rodrigo, the mysterious Spaniard (Antonio Banderas)? A favorite giggle comes from the matter-of-fact way that Douglas plays his phone call to Rodrigo: She’s loose, she’s dangerous. Maybe you don’t want to leave your house.
Screenwriter Lem Dobbs (“The Limey,” “The Score”) frames much of the story in flashback, as Mallory takes off with the civilian (Michael Angarano) who tried to save her from a Tatum beatdown in a diner. She took a lot of kicks and punches, and a grazing bullet wound.
“Put your seat belt on,” she orders. “You’re going to fix my arm while we drive.”
They hurtle along, making their getaway, and Mallory tells her story and makes the kid memorize details so that he can go to the authorities when they’re caught. She expects to be caught. Heck, she kind of wants it.
Soderbergh’s innate cynicism and lack of empathy for his characters bubbles through, as it did most notably in “Contagion,” and that too might be called cool, though the better label is “chilly.” That means we’re not as engaged to Mallory as we might be, that there’s little warmth to the character’s romantic partners or even to her scenes with her rich novelist ex-Marine dad (Bill Paxton). Compare this to the action pictures produced by Luc Besson (“Taken,” “The Transporter”), in which you invest in the characters and feel there’s more at stake.
And the script isn’t exactly packed with snappy dialogue:
“I’ll take a rain check.”
“This is Ireland. It won’t be long.”
But the fights are epic. The movies, too often, make killing people too easy. Bad guys or victims are dispatched as plot devices. Not here. Carano takes realistic punches, gets foes into grim, life-or-death chokeholds and covers her face in makeup to hide the bruises and split lips. The chases, on foot, also have a veracity the movies rarely attempt – none of this leaping into the void, relying on an awning you don’t know is there to break your fall.
Yes, there have been action heroines before, from “Dark Angel” and “Tomb Raider” to the less realistic and superior “Hanna” last spring. But Carano brings an arresting screen presence and an instant credibility – she’s beautiful, but solidly built – to screen action that’s been missing. Who knew the new Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris and Jet Li would be a woman?