Gina Carano as Mallory Kane
Michael Fassbender as Paul
Ewan McGregor as Kenneth
Bill Paxton as John Kane
Channing Tatum as Aaron
Antonio Banderas as Rodrigo
Michael Douglas as Coblenz
Michael Angarano as Scott
Mathieu Kassovitz as Studer

Do you ever get the feeling a director is just messing with you? Just because they can?

It’s not unusual to get that feeling during a Steven Soderbergh film, especially when he moves away from the intellectual driven art fare he favors to make more commercial films. It’s particularly potent during “Haywire,” Soderbergh’s first foray into the action movie genre.

Plot-wise it’s not too off the wall for this time of film. Freelance covert operative Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) has been done wrong. During an assignment to Dublin her contact tries to kill her, leading her on a chase away from authorities and back to the US to find out who double-crossed her. And make them pay.

It’s slightly more complicated than that, but that doesn’t seem matter and Soderbergh would seem to be the first person to agree with that. From word ‘go’ it’s clear he’s approaching “Haywire” as some form of intellectual exercise about how far he can bend the shape of the genre without losing his audience entirely.

What that means specifically is a languid, often expectation-defying action movie as Soderbergh methodically plays with said expectations, with varying degrees of success. He has, mostly, replaced a lot of the quick cutting and close camera work typical of action sequence with long takes shot with wide lenses creating a more realistic, less sensationalized version of glamour violence. (Except when it doesn’t).

Which is definitely an interesting, ironic way to approach this sort of thing but can’t help, laying a vicious beating on its heroine and making it okay on the grounds that she can and will give better than she gets.

And that would be great if is other experiment wasn’t such a problem.

In theory he is counterbalancing this by interspersing moments of intense action with actual character and drama, moving us out of the realm of escapism and towards actual storytelling. In theory.

Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs have chosen to write a minimalist screenplay for their heroine, one relying on her physical prowess and keeping her thoughts and emotions bottled up inside. That sort of thing can work great if you’ve got the actor to carry it off. Carano, an experienced mixed-martial artist with no real acting experience is not that person.

Molly is supposed to be quiet and contemplative, withdrawn as a mechanism to deal with the life she has chosen. In Carano’s hands she is a block of wood, replacing quiet thought with sullen lip chewing and generally incapable of expounding anything resembling a human emotion.

When her boss (McGregor) sends her on an assignment to pretend to be a bent spy’s (Fassbender) girlfriend/partner she complains she isn’t capable of playing that sort of role. Never has an actor spoken more truth about the film they are in.

Most of that weight is left to her more talkative co-stars to handle, which is fine when you’re talking about Michael Fassbender or Bill Paxton. It’s less effective when the other person is Channing Tatum who’s unfortunate appearance in the first five minutes makes for one of the most painful openers ever as the two ‘actors’ seem in a contest to out-amateur the other.

It’s easy to say that doesn’t matter in this sort of movie, that’s not the point. It would be easier to argue that if Soderbergh hadn’t set out to make it precisely the point. And maybe he could have if his instinct for experimentation hadn’t hampered him so much.

And yet I can’t escape the feeling he knows exactly what he’s doing. That he knows exactly what casting an untried talent like Carano would result in and is reveling in the irony of the strange film golem he has unleashed.

Make no mistake, experimentation is good. That’s the only way to find new, better ways of doing things. But they also teach us a lot of ways not to do things in the process. “Haywire” is a good reminder of that.