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BRUTALLY ENTERTAINING

There are few things more cinematically satisfying than watching a good old-fashioned ass-whooping. Give credit to mixed martial arts goddess Gina Carano for doing her own stunts as the star of Haywire, an awesomely entertaining spy thriller from director Steven Soderbergh. He can consider himself redeemed for 2011's disappointingly dull Contagion.

Carano plays Mallory Kane, a covert operative dispatched on dangerous missions by a private company. We learn this shortly after a riveting opening diner scene in which Mallory's former colleague, Aaron (Channing Tatum), smashes her over the head with a coffee cup and does his best to knock her senseless and bring her in. They duke it out in great form until an innocent customer named Scott (Michael Angarano, better known as the kid from Sky High) intervenes, allowing Mallory the chance to break Aaron's arm, grab Scott and his car keys, and run like hell.

From this point forward, Soderbergh brings us up to speed through flashbacks as Mallory explains to Scott how her traitorous boss (and ex-boyfriend) Kenneth (a surprisingly sleazy Ewan McGregor) set her up and has been trying to take her down. Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas join as potential players in the conspiracy as Haywire pits Mallory against multiple dastardly dudes.

Carano is more than up to the challenge, making Haywire her own with her hot-blooded performance. Her lack of acting experience is virtually unnoticeable, especially since Soderbergh builds his movie around her natural butt-kicking talent. The fight scenes are Haywire's greatest strength, although throughout the film I found myself wanting more, unfulfilled by the chases and conversations. Still, every brawl is done in signature Soderbergh style, providing the docudrama feel of Contagion but much more exciting.

There is no background music during combat, only the sound of each blow as fist connects with flesh. That may sound gruesome, but it's actually just numerous demonstrations of Carano's raw MMA skill.

None of her male opponents are a match for her, but they certainly put up a fight: These manly men don't hesitate to beat the crap out of a girl, which is part of why Haywire is such a delightful guilty pleasure. As Kenneth warns one of his cronies, "Don't think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake."

The MPAA slapped Haywire with a curious R rating; the violence is graphic but yields almost no blood, tame compared with Gwyneth Paltrow's scalp peel in Contagion. Regardless, Haywire is a fun action flick that oozes cool, thanks largely in part to Carano and her MMA magic. She does the sport proud.

Fassbender, Douglas, Banderas and McGregor are a wonderful team, all turning in solid performances that frame Carano and help her shine. The film is a taut 93 minutes, just long enough for the sharp ending to leave its mark.

Mina Asayesh-Brown is an IB senior at St. Petersburg High.

HAYWIRE - GRADE: * * * *

REVIEW KEY

* * * * * Can you marry a thing that's not a person?

* * * * Silver medals are still cool.

* * * Nobody's perfect.

* * Its mom still loves it.

* No, just no.

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