Steven Soderbergh reaches great heights with first action film Haywire

If director StevenSoderbergh is to be believed, he’ll be retiring from hisfilmmaking career after three more films, and audiences will certainlynotice the loss of one ofAmerica’s most diverse and ambitious cinematic minds.

From helming theblockbuster “Ocean’s Eleven”series to the recent virusoutbreak drama “Contagion,” not to mention his breakout independent success with 1989’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” the 49-year-old Soderbergh has built up the resume of a filmmaker many years older.

With “Haywire,” Soderbergh delves into the action genre in a way that adds to the sort of thrills that snuck their way into the “Ocean’s” movies, but surpasses the tired machismo clich of a Schwarzenegger or Stallone-style action film.Starring the femalemixed-martial artist Gina Carano, “Haywire” is a welcome dose of action movie theatrics from theprolific director, butSoderbergh’s idea of an action film is a ’70s crime movie with fight scenes.

The story is familiar one: a black-ops super soldier named Mallory (Carano) is set up in what seems like a routinerescue mission incollaboration with the U.S. government. But whatMallory doesn’t know is thatsomebody has it out for her and is using top government resources to make sure she won’t be kicking and punching much longer.

With a script by previous Soderbergh collaborator Lem Dobbs, who’s penned theunderrated “The Limey” and co-wrote Alex Proya’s “Dark City,” what beginsas a rote genre exercisequickly becomes so much more. While most actionfilms are content to barragetheir audience with a seriesof impossible stunts andsuperhuman strength – think the most recent “Die Hard” installment -Soderbergh brings “Haywire” down to a human level that’s both engaging and relatable.

In an age where it’sperfectly acceptable forhumans to be flung around by gigantic robots without dying in “Transformers” or survive a multiple-story fall in nearly any action film, “Haywire” returns to a level of realism sorely missing from the genre. When Mallory takes a hit, she hurts.

While Carano brings her all to the physicallydemanding role of Mallory, she also has acting chops, andSoderbergh explores hernewfound acting prowessthroughout the film’s93-minute running time. Sharing the screen withwell-respected talent such as Michael Douglas, AntonioBanderas and Ewan McGregor, you’d be shocked to find out Carano’s last film was apoorly received, straight-to-DVD underground fighting film called “Blood and Bone.”

As always, Soderbergh doesn’t just stop with names like Douglas and Banderas as he fills out his cast – the talented Michael Fassbender finds his way into the film as a fellow agent, and bothChanning Tatum and”Almost Famous” star MichaelAngarano provide stone-faced action and laughter.

Angarano’s character, who is kidnapped by Mallory at the beginning of the film, takes a ride with the audience asMallory explains to him how she was set up in a series of flashbacks.

These flashbacks make up the majority of how “Haywire” is told – amidst allthe visceral action thrills packed tightly into the film,Soderbergh uses theclichd storytelling device of flashbacks and makes it work. A rare feat, as the last time flashbacks really seemed to work in a film was Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” But even then, Nolan took some major creative liberties with it.

It also goes withoutsaying that anyone watching”Haywire” will be tapping their feet along to the score byDavid Holmes, who alsoprovided the memorablescores for 2008’s “Hunger”and Soderbergh’s own “Ocean’s” movies. Themusic hearkens back to’70s-era funk sounds like Roy Ayer’s score for “Coffy,”Curtis Mayfield’ “Superfly” oranything Mikis Theodorakis did for “Serpico,” only with a 21st-century sheen.

There’s plenty of praise to heap upon “Haywire,” butthe credit mostly goes toSoderbergh for the film’ssuccess. As the filmmaker continually proveshimself to be a distinguishedauteur, even his actors sniffout projects he’s involved with, as recent Golden Globenominee Fassbender told film blog The Playlist.

“The opportunity to work with him was too good a chance to let slip,” he said. “I thought it was aninteresting world, aninteresting character to play. I thought there was enough on the page but it wasn’t over-written and didn’t sort of bog me down with too much information, so there was enough blank space for me to fill in and get creative with it. But mainly StevenSoderbergh.”

Fortunately, the proof is in the film with this one, as”Haywire” proves that thedirector’s ambitious nature is not beyond his reach.”Haywire,” which has beenunfairly delegated to thedesolate January cinemalandscape, brings all thehigh-caliber acting, composing and, in this case, fighting that we’ve come to expect from this beloved director.