Since Steven Soderbergh announced he was retiring to become a painter — an announcement from which he’s since backpedaled — he is undertaking a string of eclectic, even baffling projects: an Altmanesque comedy about male strippers starring Channing Tatum (this summer’s “Magic Mike”), a long-gestating Liberace biopic for HBO starring Michael Douglas (next year’s “Behind the Candelabra”), a rumored 3-D rock musical with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Cleopatra (“Cleo”).
His latest, “Haywire” — which was actually shot two years ago — is a vehicle for women’s mixed martial arts champion Gina Carano. That’s some bucket list.
“Haywire” makes one wonder if those retirement plans aren’t premature. Wrong-headed in every way, it fails both as a spy thriller and as a throwback to ’70s exploitation flicks. Chief among its liabilities is Carano, whose flat voice and listless non-acting are made more egregious by having her go toe-to-toe with such heavyweights as Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender. (She even makes Tatum, who plays her erstwhile partner, look good.)
Carano plays a black ops specialist and ex-Marine gone mercenary for a sketchy private contractor. When a mission in Dublin sheds light on her employer’s true motives, she’s on her own with assassins on her tail — cue the obligatory rooftop chase — seeking revenge on the men who done her wrong.
We learn this in flashback as she tells her story to the audience’s stand-in, a teenage boy (Michael Angarano) whose car she’s just jacked. She reveals everything about her clandestine missions, violating Secret Agent Rule No. 1. Then, with her employer out for blood, she goes to visit her father (Bill Paxton), a best-selling author of spy thrillers (one of which she lugs around in her backpack — in hardcover), putting him and his lovely house in jeopardy.
It’s cathartic to watch the statuesque, sturdy Carano beating the stuffing out of Tatum, Fassbender and McGregor (the last is certainly not a fair fight), but the action is fleeting; she spends most of the movie’s brief running time slipping down picturesque streets and checking Blackberry messages as locations (Barcelona! Majorca!) flash on the screen.
An early champion of digital filmmaking, Soderbergh shoots, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, without movie lights, which results in a chilly elegance outdoors on an overcast day. But indoors, skin can appear orange or actors are upstaged by sun blasting through windows. Shots from the opposite angle in the same room have an entirely different color palette. This, in turn, works against Soderbergh’s post-“Traffic” penchant for color-coded locations.
That Soderbergh has chosen painting as his next medium is perplexing since, to borrow a plot point from “Hollywood Ending,” a film by the equally prolific Woody Allen, he might as well be going blind.