Haywire opens with a scene in which Mallory Kane (the retired mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano), an erstwhile member of a private contractor’s elite, government-sponsored fighting force, has a tense meeting with Aaron (Channing Tatum), a beefy colleague who’s come to retrieve her from the field. Before the inevitable beatdown ensues — she’s gone rogue after being double-crossed by her boss, so she’s obviously not going anywhere without a fight — it becomes apparent that this isn’t your typical action programmer. The tip-off isn’t in what you see, but what you hear. Or, rather, what you don’t hear. The two leads converse in near-complete silence, as if they’re floating in space instead of sitting in an upstate diner. The waitress says a few words, meekly, but the expected sound bed of dishes clanking and walla FX is conspicuously absent.

Haywire has some of the most minimal sound design I’ve ever heard in a Hollywood film. That’s not a surprise, exactly. Soderbergh has been turning out jazzbo interpretations of genre films since hitting his stride with 1998’s Out of Sight, which introduced the swinging soundtracks of David Holmes as a loping counterpart to Soderbergh’s laid-back, often nonlinear expository style. Holmes’ music is the defining aural characteristic of Haywire, though Soderbergh dials it back, along with all non-diegetic sound, for the film’s frequent fight scenes, which generally feature Carano getting smacked around a bit by a bigger, tougher male that she proceeds to beat the hell out of. (Her adversaries are always male; save a bit of bikini-clad eye candy that makes an appearance in the final reel, Carano is the only woman in the picture.)

The film benefits, I know, from the low-key sound design, which stands here in opposition to the hyperactive over-amplification routinely trafficked in by studio features. (It’s like watching a vintage Jackie Chan movie in Chinese with the original Foley track — which is loud enough — as opposed to the ridiculously over-the-top sound effects dubbed in by their American distributors.) But Soderbergh’s approach is a little too stripped-down — when you’re making a conventional genre movie, the absence of conventional genre elements can become distracting in itself.

Like Soderbergh’s previous collaboration with screenwriter Lem Dobbs, The Limey, Haywire is in part a riff on the director’s beloved Point Blank, the archetypal John Boorman/Lee Marvin drama that paved the way for decades of cold-blooded revenge thrillers to follow. Haywire‘s plot machinations — the double-cross, the spurned lover, the villain’s inadvertent telephone confession — have been clipped from other films and dropped in here with the barest camouflage. Then again, there’s not much that could be done to hide them — the movie runs a bare 92 minutes, and that’s with an odd framing device taking up extra time on screen.

What’s interesting here isn’t really story, of course. The audience for Haywire is, at least presumably, expecting to see real-life MMA star Gina Carano get physical with her opponents, whether they happen to be anonymous SWAT types or, heck, Michael Fassbender. Fortunately, she brings the goods — the film doesn’t exactly test her range, but she’s in her element with sheer phsyicality, conveying a tight, poker-faced intelligence, and at least holding her own when it comes to glamour. Soderbergh’s conventional action set pieces (notably two footchases, one with Carano as the pursuer and one where she’s the fugitive) are reasonably exciting and, although it’s only January, I do feel comfortable saying the Carano/Fassbender match is likely to rank among the best scenes of the year. It’s the connective tissue that feels slack. The film’s more idiosyncratic touches, like dropping in and out of a black-and-white palette for no really good reason, screwing with the shutter angle to suddenly impart that sharp, flickering Saving Private Ryan effect; or concluding with an archly abrupt cut to credits, function like obstacles blocking my view of the good stuff. Soderbergh doesn’t withhold the simple pleasure of physical action, but the way he doles it out to the audience at regular intervals, like soft treats given to a good kitty, is perfunctory.

I liked Haywire, and I’d recommend it as a well-made action film. It certainly fits that description, and too few studio movies do these days. But I like my action movies to have a certain je nais sais quois — depending on the film, it might be a sense of abandon, ruthless focus, or just the whiff of disrepute — and Haywire is too self-consciously sophisticated for my taste. (It’s not so much a question of style as sensibility. Maybe it would help if Soderbergh would rethink his one-man-band policy and start regularly hiring editors and cinematographers who might argue with him instead of doing the work, mostly, by himself.) By putting his good taste on display with so many nudges and winks at the audience, Soderbergh declares, essentially, “These things make this kind of movie palatable to me.” I object to the qualifier. I very much like the kind of movie Haywire is, and what Soderbergh does to it in an effort to freshen it up is, ironically, the stuff that keeps it kind of bland.

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