If online and offline accounts are to be trusted, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh discovered mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano three years ago on TV as she pummeled an under-matched, under-skilled opponent into submission.

Soderbergh (Contagion, the Ocean’s trilogy, Traffic) saw raw potential in Carano, a potential action star, a perfect fit for a vengeance-seeking, Bourne-style mercenary/assassin Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs (The Score, The Limey, Kafka) dreamed up over e-mail, twitter, or Facebook.

Hampered by a familiar, unimaginative, pedestrian plot, depth-free characters, Haywire becomes watchable due primarily to brute-force, Bourne-influenced fight scenes featuring an eager Carano methodically dismantling and demolishing a variety of Hollywood leading men.

Former U.S. Marine Mallory Kane (Carano) is the best (of the best) operative-assassin employed by a Blackwater-like private company with close ties to the U.S. government. Initially, the assignment that takes Kane to Barcelona seems like a straightforward snatch-and-grab: saving a kidnapped Chinese dissident/journalist, Jiang (Anthony Brandon Wong). We never learn the identities or allegiances of Jiang’s unpleasant kidnappers, but they look vaguely Middle-Eastern or Latin American. Not that Kane’s team is filled with Caucasian All-Stars. It’s not. There’s at least one Latino or Spanish speaker on her team, but they function primarily as background filler. Once Kane and her team complete the assignment, Kane and another member of her team, Aaron (Channing Tatum), set aside their professional duties and obligations for some rest and recreation (or so we’re led to assume after a tasteful fadeout).

Before Kane can chill back in her San Diego home, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), her employer and former lover, shows up at her doorstep. He proposes a relatively straightforward mission: a short-duration recon of a target in Dublin as the arm candy to another freelance operative, Paul (Michael Fassbender). The mission quickly goes sideways. Kane goes on the run, searching for the answers as to why she was targeted for elimination before slipping to the United States where Haywire actually opens (upstate New York to be exact). Kane meets and dispenses with Aaron before making a quick escape in the car of a college-aged hipster, Scott (Michael Angarano). Scott functions as an exposition magnet, semi-calmly listening as Kane (i.e., the woman who just gave a much larger man a serious beatdown) narrates her backstory for his and, more importantly, the audience’s benefit.

A clumsy, awkward flashback structure is only one of Haywire’s problems. A murky, underwhelming mystery gives Haywire a minimal amount of narrative momentum, but it’s ultimately secondary (if not tertiary) to Haywire raison d’être: giving Carano a showcase for her considerable physical talents and skills. A charismatic performer, Carano never fails to deliver during Haywire periodic action scenes. Unfortunately, Haywire also calls on Carano to emote and deliver dialogue. She shows sporadic promise, but obviously needs careful coaching when it comes to line readings. Carano often runs through her lines without inflection or variation, sounding like an inexperienced, uncertain actress (which she is).

Still, for all of Haywire’s clumsy storytelling and flawed central performance, it delivers exactly what the trailers and TV ads promised: a compulsively watchable, well-crafted action film. Haywire may be minor Soderbergh, but his obvious command of cinematography, editing, and mise-en-scene, unsurprising given that Soderbergh edited and shot Haywire as well, makes Haywire a worthwhile alternative to the usually mediocre entries dumped on unsuspecting and suspecting audiences alike every January and February.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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