Gina Carano's 'Haywire' movie review

Female mixed martial arts (MMA) star and former American Gladiator Gina Carano (above) gets fired up (and on) for her starring role in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire movie, hitting theaters on Jan. 20, 2012.

The great thing about going to see Gina Carano's Haywire movie, which opens in theaters nationwide on Jan. 20, 2012, is that even if you don't like the film, you're still entitled to almost two hours of gratuitous ogling of the former mixed martial arts (MMA) champion.

And that's really the secret ingredient in making Haywire, directed by Steven Soderbergh and co-starring Ewan McGregor, such an effective R-rated action thriller.

This is a starring vehicle for the former American Gladiator and while we know she can fight, having amassed a 7-1 record during her career as a professional MMA fighter, what we didn't know was whether or not she could act.

She can.

That's not to suggest she'll be walking the red carpet at this year's Academy Awards, but keep in mind Carano is sharing the screen with such celluloid legends as Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas.

Think about that for a second. Our Gina Carano is chewing scenery with Gordon-freaking-Gekko.

Haywire tells the story of Mallory Kane (Carano), a super-secret spy recruited by her former boss (McGregor) to do "one last job" for a faceless organization. As the film unfolds, she finds herself betrayed and on the run, not sure who to trust as she chop-sockys her way back onto U.S. soil.

In other words, it's the same tired formula we've seen in countless other spy flicks.

So why is this film so damn enjoyable? Well, for starters, Soderbergh is a master craftsman. His usual trademarks are all here, including his signature gritty style, established in previous films like The Limey and Traffic.

Fight scenes, inevitable when your leading role is embodied by a professional cage-fighter, never overstep the boundaries defined in a legitimate combat sports competition. Wire work is nonexistent and editing is done primarily in long shots.

And, most importantly, in real time.

That was a major concern for me, as a fan of both MMA and action movies. Nothing irks me more than two "fighters" executing tornado kicks while dangling from a helicopter or flying through the windshield of an oncoming cement truck.

But is it fair to classify Haywire as simply an exercise in style?

Perhaps. The plot is so thin you could practically floss with it, but every actor who put pen to paper and walked on set, including the terrific Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) and flavor-of-the-month Channing Tatum (G.I. Joe), plays it straight, giving Haywire a much-needed feeling of authenticity.

At the end of the day, however, the success of this caper is directly proportionate to the mainstream appeal of Carano, who glows onscreen with an understated charm and old-school glamor, like the kind you might expect from a leading lady in the silent film era.

Not bad for a gal who used to make a living by getting punched in the face for a few hundred bucks a month.

The artist formerly known as "Conviction" is a natural beauty, refreshingly full-figured with a touch of girl-next-door-ishness, allowing her to kick the crap out of gun-toting bad guys without the audience thinking, "Yeah, right."

While Carano is the focal point of the narrative, she plays it no differently than what you might expect from a male counterpart in the same role: Withdrawn, brooding and only speaking when the plot requires her to.

In fact, most of her actual "acting" is relegated to body language.

That's by design, as Soderbergh makes a concerted effort to play to her strengths, instead of rolling the dice with a more developed character for her onscreen debut. And having an all-star cast to support her certainly doesn't hurt.

The result is a film of remarkable appeal.

Carano commands the screen and ultimately, the audience. By the time the end credits roll, you will have gotten exactly what you paid for: "The Face of Women's MMA" doing exactly what she does best.

Kicking ass and looking good in the process.

I know a lot of steadfast moviegoers have stopped trekking to the theater as a result of rising ticket prices and substandard offerings. Haywire, one of the first major motion pictures of 2012, is the strongest argument you can make for reconsidering that position. Managing Editor Jesse Holland attended an October 2011 screening of Haywire. You can follow more of his exploits on Twitter @Jesse_Holland. Or not. To see what all the fuss is about, check out the complete Haywire movie trailer here.

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