I don't think anyone will be troubled by the fact that in Haywire, a woman is beaten up a great deal. The reason it isn't troubling is that the woman in this case can give far better than she takes. Haywire is an action film. It doesn't pretend to be one of great depth or insight. It seeks to entertain with a lot of fight scenes and the thin concept of a plot. In that respect, Haywire has done its job well. In other respects, it's a bit of a mixed bag.
Mallory Kane (MMA star Gina Carano) is at a coffee shop, waiting for someone. Enter said someone, Aaron (Channing Tatum), someone she knows but does not expect. Aaron tells her she needs to come with him. Obviously, she can't, and from there a full-fledged action scene takes place where Mallory takes Aaron down (the fact that Carano did to Tatum what I would love to do to his career already gave Haywire a few positive points in my opinion, but I digress). In the ensuing chaos, a good Samaritan, Scott (Michael Angarano) steps in to try to help the woman, but he ends up being taken by Mallory as her getaway. From there, we get the backstory.
Mallory and Aaron had worked together in Barcelona to rescue a Chinese journalist/activist/dissident. After the gig (and a very brief affair), Mallory wants to retire. Her boss/former lover Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) brings her back because she has been specifically requested for another delicate mission, this time in Ireland. Accompanying her as "the beard" is Paul (Michael Fassbender), posing as a married couple. This mission is a bit murkier than last, and with good reason: the Chinese man she had rescued is now dead at the estate they are at, and she learns that SHE is the next target, with Paul being her assassin. Another action scene ensues, leading to her winning that fight. She then discovers that Kenneth had set her up.
Now she is on the run, with only her father, ex-military and writer John (Bill Paxton) to help her. Government agent Cobletz (Michael Douglas) says he'll help her in exchange for helping him bring Kenneth down. She now seeks revenge for this betrayal. In a grand plan, Cobletz works both sides: making Kenneth look as if he is helping him by suggesting he put the squeeze on John but really leading him into her trap. Aaron, believing Mallory has gone rogue, comes, but then he starts to wonder what exactly Kenneth is up to. Kenneth kills him when he comes too close to the truth and flees.
Mallory, determined to exterminate all who tried to do her in, gets more help from Cobletz (he informing her he fled to Mexico). Mallory then gets to Kenneth and learns that there had been a double deal: get the dissent in a fake rescue when really he was going to be killed somewhere else (the 'kidnappers' really being his protectors). Haywire ends with her having found Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas), the last link the the chain.
The screenplay of Haywire by Lem Dobbs isn't so much far-fetched as it is by-the-book. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Mallory is being set up (almost to where we are expecting it). It also is a standard that there is 'one last job' someone is brought in to do. It isn't even surprising that when someone is complimented on how good their driving is...
However, I don't think the plot of Haywire is of particular importance. Rather, it serves as a vehicle for director Steven Soderbergh to make an action film with a lot of fight scenes and to showcase Carino's formidable fighting skills. In reality, Haywire is a way to show that actors more known as 'thespians' (such as Fassbender and McGregor) can easily slip into being action stars themselves.
The fight scenes are certainly impressive (in particular that between Carino and Fassbender which is no-holds-barred). The opening scene between Carino and Tatum had me cheering (but it had nothing to do with either the choreography or a rooting for Mallory. Take a guess as to why I would enjoy seeing Channing Tatum bloodied on the floor...).
In terms of acting, Carino is pretty blank and monotone. She cannot express emotions, looking always as if she is just waiting to fight. Her obvious lack of acting ability of course means one thing: she was a master class compared to Channing Tatum, someone who has become famous for his body but is, shockingly enough, even less expressive and couldn't given a performance if the fate of the free world depended on it.
Despite the fact that the hook in Haywire is having a woman as the kick-ass heroine, the film surprisingly is a showcase for male performers (and Tatum). The film gives actors as varied as McGregor and Fassbender both a small role where they become shady characters and action stars. Though they are hardly large parts (Fassbender gets killed off rather quickly), it does show that both of them are more than capable of handling action films. McGregor even was able to show that despite his bluster Kenneth was a bit of wimp (almost crying when he can't get away from Mallory).
Angarano (whom for the longest time I kept wondering where I had seen him in until it hit me: Sky High), is the comic relief, and he handles the part well, even allowing for moments of genuine human warmth (in a film that is remarkably stylized in regards to the fights and story).
One brilliant aspect in Haywire is David Holmes' score. Unlike in other films, there is no to little music in the fight scenes themselves (bringing a sense of reality to a basically unreal situation), but the score is well-written and well-used.
I can't say whether Haywire expects to be the first in a series (certainly the closing barely hints at the idea of perhaps a sequel). The story is almost a first draft of an idea for a Bond film and the acting by Carino is nonexistent. However, there are good action/fight scenes (again, the one between Carino and Fassbender quite well done) and Haywire is nothing more than a chance to see a woman take down some men. It's not the greatest of films by any stretch, but it's entertaining enough. Haywire lands some good punches but is not a knockout (though again, just to see Channing Tatum taken down...)