On a lark I bought Haywire from iTunes last night. It’s an action movie by Steven Soderberg (usually good stuff) and stars MMA fighter Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, and Michael Fassbender. To my surprise, I didn’t get the movie I thought I’d get, but an a rather decent espionage/action pic.

The good: the movie isn’t overly convoluted, like a lot of spy pics like to get with triple and quadruple twists; the intelligence field is often stunningly simple — the motivations are money, feeling unappreciated or undervalued, or there’s an ideological component. Know the motivations, anticipate the actions, then take the blame when policymakers screw up the big moves. Haywire keeps is simple. The bad guys are quickly established, their motives are a bit shady, but once understood, the plot is — as in life — a “why didn’t I see that coming?” moment.

The fight sequences, as you would expect, are quite good and very vicious. they have a reality that most fight coordination lacks. Soderberg also understands that it’s better to see what’s happening, rather than obscuring it in fast cuts to make the action faster. You can see what the participants are doing and it looks painful. Easily the most brutal feeling is the first encounter with Channing Tatum, an actor you might not know the name of, but you’ll recognize straight off.

I like that Soderberg kept her character, Mallory Kane, more realistic. She gets knocked around a lot, and while her character keeps fighting, she doesn’t have the superman feel the action pics give to some characters. She gets bruised and cut, and stays that way; she gets hurt and doesn’t shrug it off. It has a similar feel to the fights in Casino Royale.

Soderberg looks to be using natural lighting through the movie, and it gives the film a more realistic feel than the artfully lit action movies. The music is quirky and has an almost 60/early 70s feel to it that lends a big more class to the picture. Top it off with excellent performances from Fassbender (rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors), McGregor (always reliable, even when the movie sucks), and a very understated, classy turn by Antonio Banderas. I’m not overly impressed with Tatum as an actor, but he slams down the action work like a champ. Michael Douglas is a bit player in the movie playing every other Michael Douglas in a suit role.

The bad: the timing of the film and the way the trailers were put together made this feel like it would be a “Bourne with tits” show. It is and it isn’t. You know the heroine got set up (not by the government, but by her company, run by her sleezy spec ops contractor boyfriend [McGregor.]) The film tells the why in flashbacks and I found I wanted a bit more reveal over the course of the movie, rather than the confession/info dump from McGregor at the end. I thought Douglas’ role needed expanded and better integrated into the film; that could have been an editing room issue.

I’m splitting this bit specifically to talk about Gina Carano. She looks like someone that knows how to throw a punch and isn’t glammed up, and she is beautifully physical in the role. She doesn’t get a lot of time for acting — probably a good thing for her first movie — and there’s a lot of glaring and looking superior. I don’t fault her; the director could have worked in a few moments to really humanize her with a few small gestures. I’m not saying she can’t act, but I don’t think she was pushed as hard to do so as she was to show off her remarkable athleticism. I didn’t expect this, as I was supremely unimpressed by the trailers, but I’d like to see her in something again where they give her a bit more than just muy thai to do.

Overall, I’d give this a three and a half to four out of five, depending on your expectations of the movie. If you want kick ass fights and a spare but good story, four; if you wanted a deep spy thriller or a more Bourne-like frenetic ride, 3.5. Or for those that know me: it was a good matinee movie, but not a full pricer. So if you rent, well worth it; if you and a bunch of buddies are going to watch it at least once, it’s a good buy from iTunes or on DVD.