I decided not to do any blogging last weekend, mostly due to some family business. I didn’t think this would be a problem, since January releases are traditionally the worst of the year. But then the critical reviews came in with some rather surprising news: Quite a few of the more recent releases are supposedly really good. Yes, there were a few stinkers (The Devil Inside), and some huge disappointments (Red Tails), but a couple of movies currently playing have been given such high praise that I’m a little upset I couldn’t get to them sooner. So I’ll be spending the next few days catching up.

First on deck is Haywire, a movie that’s been on my radar for some time now. It comes to us by way of Steven Soderbergh, a tremendously talented director who keeps lining up productions in spite of his frequent and repeated threats to retire. He’s quoted as saying “I’m interested in exploring another art form while I have the time and ability to do so.” In other words, he fancies himself as a man who’s interested in pushing his own boundaries as an artist. From this, we may infer that as a film-maker, Soderbergh isn’t satisfied with following tried-and-true cinema conventions and would rather push that envelope where possible. Both of these points explain so very much about his new action thriller movie, which sticks out like a clown suit against the business casual wardrobe of Soderbergh’s filmography thus far.

Our heroine for the evening is Mallory Kane, played by acting newcomer and retired MMA professional Gina Carano. She isn’t some genetically enhanced super-soldier, though you might be forgiven for thinking so. Mal is actually a second-generation Marine, currently working as a mercenary for some private firm contracted by the government. She’s also the best mercenary they’ve got, and everyone knows it. We first meet her in a diner, where an old colleague (Channing Tatum) nearly does the unthinkable and kills her. But then some poor bystander (Scott, played by Michael Angarano) makes the mistake of intervening and clumsily saving Mal’s life. He gets carjacked for the trouble, thus becoming our audience surrogate through two-thirds of the film.

Through flashbacks, we see Mal go on a couple of missions before her co-workers decide for unknown reasons to start killing her. Turns out that Mal somehow managed to stumble into some kind of conspiracy, and she’s trying to get to the bottom of it. Oh, and she’s also being framed as a terrorist.

In case the premise hadn’t clued you in, this is hardly some brainless action film. There are a lot of twists and turns in this plot, and the film utilizes taut suspense where most other films would use explosions. A great amount of attention is demanded of the audience, and developments move at a brisk pace through the 93-minute running time.

That said, the screenplay is terribly uneven in its quality. Though the film has a great deal of very tense scenes and a ton of spectacular action (more on that later), I won’t bother pretending that there aren’t a few plot holes and contrivances here and there. More importantly, I noticed a rather disturbing pattern: The film is at its best when the characters are silent. The dialogue falls completely flat from start to finish, with precious few lines that sound like anything an actual human being might say. This was especially bad at the beginning, when the characters were speaking in some kind of bureaucratic/military dialect, completely void of any exposition that might help me understand what they were talking about.

Nevertheless, the dialogue still isn’t bad enough to completely sink the film, and a great deal of that is thanks to the phenomenal cast. Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Bill Paxton are all cast in roles that they could play in their sleep, but these are still three world-class actors and their very presence elevates the film considerably. Michael Fassbender also appears, playing a mercenary with such incredible fighting skills that I’m left wondering if there’s anything Fassbender can’t do. Additionally, I have to give props to Ewan McGregor. He plays a character in this movie that’s totally against type, and it’s a delightful thing to see.

Of course, the weak link in this cast is Channing Tatum. He has no less than four high-profile movies coming up this year, and he’s collaborating with Soderbergh for two other films. I have absolutely no idea why (aside from Magic Mike, anyway, that part I get). Aside from his admittedly solid fighting skills, Tatum brings absolutely nothing to a role. He can’t act to save his life, that’s all there is to it. I don’t think I’d have minded his presence in this movie if Tatum was relegated to some minor role, but no. His character keeps appearing in this picture right up until the climax. And all the other cast members kept acting him off the screen every step of the way.

Last but not least is Gina Carano, who just became everyone’s top choice to play Wonder Woman, Lara Croft, Samus Aran, and any other beautiful badass female roles out there. Hell, if this film came out a couple of years ago, I guarantee you she would’ve been on the short list to play Catwoman. Might’ve gotten the role, too. But I digress.

Mallory is a role whose principal requirement is to be unrelentingly awesome, so I think it’s a little early to tell if Carano will cut it as an actor. However, she does manage to hold her own against a cast of seasoned veterans, so there’s that. It also helps that she does indeed kick an unholy amount of ass in this film, and she looks damn fine doing it. The camera loves her, and no mistake.

However, this film doesn’t portray her character as most other action movies would portray a gorgeous woman of mystery. If this was a Michael Bay picture, you know the film would make up some excuse to put her in a bikini. You know the camera would pan across her slowly so we could drool over every curve. But Soderbergh and Carano don’t go that route. Though Mal is chosen for a particular assignment just to be eye candy, she goes about the mission like a professional (though not before griping about the situation). When we see Mal get herself dolled up, she looks stunningly gorgeous without any cleavage or excessive skin. Though she does have a very brief make-out scene (in which she goes straight for the guy’s belt, I might add), there’s no nudity or ass shots. The characters all make it abundantly clear that Mal has a very healthy sex life, yet Mal herself is never shown to be the least bit slutty.

In short, Mal is depicted as a sexual woman, but not as a sex object. Everybody knows that she’s beautiful, yet the movie never comes across as exploitative about it. That’s a rare thing to see in a movie that focuses so heavily on such a beautiful young woman, and I applaud the filmmakers for it.

While I’m at it, I’ll applaud the filmmakers for their technical excellence as well. The fight scenes are exquisitely choreographed, with steady camera work and sound design that helps us feel every blow. Even when there isn’t any action on display, the film is loaded with stylistic flourishes that keep the film coherent and interesting to watch. My favorite example comes roughly halfway in the film, when Mal is simply walking down the street. Yet the camera highlights every passing stranger and every driving car while the sound mix amplifies even the most innocuous noise. It’s a masterful job of putting us in Mal’s headspace and helping us share in her paranoia. Awesome.

I won’t deny that Haywire is a very flawed movie. There are several cheap plot contrivances, the dialogue is near-uniformly terrible, and Channing Tatum needs to go away post-haste. Still, Soderbergh proves that he’s a superlative director, and the rest of the cast turns in some damn fine work with what they have. Gina Carano in particular has proven herself as a talent to keep an eye on. More importantly, this is an action film with enough stellar fight scenes to appease the lowest common denominator while also being intellectual enough for those who are tired of the same old car explosions.

The film is ultimately a quick and forgettable joy ride for those who want a plot with their action films. If that sounds up your alley, give this a shot.