Are actors necessary? Many of cinema's powerhouse directors, from Hitchcock to Kubrick, preferred to think of their performers as nonessential furnishings, but only Steven Soderbergh has tried to eliminate them entirely. In the shadow cast by his promised but ever-receding retirement, Soderbergh can work with nearly any star he likes, but he prefers the company of amateurs and alternative professionals. There was porn starlet Sasha Grey as a $2,000-an-hour escort in The Girlfriend Experience, and here in espionage thriller Haywire is Gina Carano: an ultimate-fighting champion uncaged to destroy Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender and Antonio Banderas. It's as if Soderbergh sent a bouncer to clear out Wolfgang Puck's Oscar afterparty.

The Girlfriend Experience, like most of Soderbergh's recent work, was an interesting abstract experiment. Haywire is a sly triumph. Carano, who plays a black-ops mercenary and resembles a beefed-up Danica Patrick, struggles in early dialogue exchanges—but then Channing Tatum attacks her with a coffee mug and she's freed to communicate with her thighs, which she uses to put GQ cover boys in lethal headlocks. Her native expressionlessness ups the ante on the macho inscrutability affected by would-be Bonds, and her onslaught against debonair foes (all of them at their most iconically suave) feels like a sabotage of male ego. Michael Angarano even plays the helpless ingénue whose carjacking and panicked demand to hear the backstory is a genre requirement. 

Other than the gender somersault, this is an unremarkable action script: double-cross and revenge, studded with fights. Its delights are all in the deployment of style. With its sequences divided into different color and location motifs—blue mesa, golden Dublin, pink Mexico—Haywire is Soderbergh making a remix of the spy flick. It's a lo-fi, unplugged studio session: Even the central car chase is conducted at low speed across packed snow. The movie's title must be tongue-in-cheek, since Haywire is a demonstration of control. Soderbergh is an independent director who makes passionate cases for the establishment (see Traffic and Contagion), and Haywire, with its government bureaucrats cleaning up a military contractor's mess, is no exception. Individual personalities may go berserk, but a firm hand—and strong thighs—are in charge. R.

91 SEE IT: Haywire opens Friday at Fox Tower, Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cornelius, Pioneer Place, Lloyd Mall, Tigard and Wilsonville.